Madness and women in turkish literature through the lens of gender and aesthetic autonomy

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Tezcan, Nuran
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Bilkent University
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In this study, I examine why and how madness—an overarching concept that is positioned as the opposite of rationality and functions as a way of showing what is abnormal—has been associated with femininity in Turkish literature. Beginning with the 19th century, I will discuss genderized forms of madness in literature in conjunction with the paradigmatic changes these forms underwent in connection to the Turkish modernization process. In this manner, I will clarify in periodical terms the effects on literature of norms determined by such closely interrelated social variables as political conditions, the development of modern psychiatry, the women’s movement, and the transformation of gender-related social policies. Beginning in the 1890s, and particularly in the works of male authors, there is a notable prevalence of female characters who go mad as a result of free love and unrestrained sexuality, characters who were drawn under the influence of such contemporary psychiatric notions as hysteria and degeneration. In this context, it is clear that this oft-repeated image is a literary reflection of tacit patriarchal anxieties concerning a loss of authority in the face of women’s struggles for equality and basic rights, struggles that had become an important issue of the Ottoman project of modernization and that took center stage in contemporary debates on societal change. At the same time, those female authors of the period who dealt with the subject of female madness in their works approached the issue differently than male authors in that they took up the matter in terms of women’s place(s) in society. It can also be observed that, in more general terms, the connection made between female madness—as opposed to male rationality and willpower—and the supposed danger to the social order of a female sexuality characterized as “sedition” continued to rear its head through the social gender roles that were given shape under the emergent nationalism of republican modernization. Moreover, in the period after the establishment of the republic, in opposition to the ostensibly new type of woman that emerged as women became “rationalized,” as well as becoming more masculine and losing their aura of mystery, traditional female beauty and sexual attraction became an object of nostalgia for male desire and, once again, came to be resurrected in the form of madness. In the post-1960 period, a social realist aesthetic became dominant in literature in parallel with the rise of leftist politics. Modernist enterprises that defended aesthetic autonomy came to be criticized within the framework of psychopathology, and female authors—who were among the pioneers of this anti-aesthetic that was medicalized as a bourgeois disease—came face to face with a double dilemma in terms of having to prove themselves as a result of the gender hierarchy that was in place. However, even as female authors who sought autonomy both aesthetically and intellectually as well as individually were highly praised, they also came to be associated with madness in a romanticized manner that ultimately rendered their literary originality quite indistinct. As a result, the work of Leylâ Erbil, Sevim Burak, and Tezer Özlü—whose names are often connected with madness and at the same time taken as exemplars for contemporary female authors—have remained little studied by critics. In this study, I conduct detailed analyses that focus on one work by each of these authors in which they are considered to have, in different ways, pushed the limits of literature. In this manner, the study will question the specific aesthetic relationship each of these authors and works establishes with madness.

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