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A Work of Instincts


Could we forgive a man who would, like Kafka in a diary entry on 3rd January 1912, insist “that when it became clear in my organism that writing was the most productive direction for my being to take, everything rushed in that direction and left empty all those abilities which were directed towards the joys of sex, eating, drinking, philosophical reflection, and above all music”? But what if a man lacked that inner integrity and could not devote himself to a relationship, as Kafka seemed unable to, not due to fidelity to his work, but through a need to be unfaithful in his life?

Now we use the word unfaithful here in a broader sense than sexual infidelity, even though that is at the heart of central character Isa’s bad conscience. There is little it seems in Isa’s life that he can do that moves him into the sort of active direction Kafka offers almost as if a religious conversion. Bad faith in this context is the opposite of the sort of faith we’re proposing Kafka possesses; it is, if you like, no more in Isa’s case than a fidelity to the moment, but a perverse fidelity for this is the world of impulses not of instincts. When Kafka claims he wants to be faithful to his work, all the impulses – for food, for sex, even for music – give way it would seem to deep instinct. In Isa, any decisions he makes are promptly followed by indecisions and changes of direction. Can we propose that Isa is a shallow character by virtue of giving in to his impulses rather than trusting and building upon his instincts?

Let us say a little bit more about the central character in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s film, a character that happens to be played by the director himself. He is a man in his mid-forties who teaches at a university and still hasn’t got round to finishing off his PhD.  He’s a photographer and lecturer who at the start of the film is holidaying with his younger lover in the South of Turkey, and yet something is making Isa bored and Bahar unhappy. We notice while he takes pictures at an ancient site that she sits up on the hill, looking down at him as she starts to cry.

What might be generating these tears we may ask, and in a scene shortly afterwards we are given some idea. As Isa and Bahar go for dinner to friends of Isa’s, Ceylan offers a twofold tension. As he holds the shot for several minutes as the wife goes off and makes coffee, the friend, Isa and Bahar sit making small talk that evaporates into an exposé of a collapsing relationship. Isa starts to feel cold and assumes that Bahar must be equally feeling its effects. As he puts on an extra layer of clothing he proposes Bahar does the same. She insists she is fine, and Isa repeats what he’s said and Bahar snaps back that she isn’t feeling the cold. The friend looks on and the small talk returns as Bahar takes some wine and quickly drains the glass.

We may suppose this is a moment not of empathy on Isa’s part as he tries to persuade Bahar to wrap up, but a moment of power play where Isa tells Bahar what she should do. It resembles in some ways a familial dynamic where a parent insists a child needs to dress up more warmly; that the child is too ignorant of her own needs to know what is good for her. When, in a scene shortly afterwards at the beach, Isa reckons they should split up, that maybe she was right that the age gap is too great, we might be inclined to think it isn’t so much the age gap as a sort of empathy gap. For a parent to tell a child to wrap up warm is one thing – a young child’s grip on the cause and effect word of reality is often limited, and the child may believe that because the body is warm the weather happens to be also – but for a man of around forty five to speak to a woman at least in her mid-twenties the same comment smacks of condescension. After all in the earlier scene at dinner Isa’s friend is sitting there wearing a shirt with rolled up sleeves: Isa would hardly tell the friend to put on another layer. In the dinner scene indeed Isa shows himself to be a man without a strong empathic relationship with the world: he is cold so he assumes his girlfriend who is wearing a short sleeved dress must be cold also. This is no more than superficial fellow-feeling; a person even less clad than he is must surely be at least as cold as he happens to be.

This is once again an example of a shallow character: if we’ve proposed he can’t trust his instincts and lives off his impulses; he also assumes that if he is cold his girlfriend must be cold also. In each instance we can say he lacks the ‘depth’ to look at a situation complexly. Another example of his shallowness comes when he talks to a colleague about the colleague’s relationship. The apparently hen-pecked colleague tells Isa that he has turned things around. By threatening to end it “there are no more wagging fingers” from his partner, and Isa laughs, responding not at all to the partner’s feelings of insecurity, but only to the colleague’s description of the power play. Isa also muses though over whether she’ll return to her old ways after they get marred, and the colleague doesn’t think so. Isa, cracking his fingers, says he wouldn’t be so sure.

Now what we want to avoid here is seeing Isa as an amoral character; and instead focus much more on his emotional inadequacies as the film accumulates a vision of bad faith. If Isa’s instincts were consistently amoral, then perhaps he would prove a less damaging character to both himself and others. He may at least have developed his instincts in a consistent enough direction to have focus within him, and to offer enough warning signs to others. It is more useful however to see Isa as an impulsive character for whom fellow feeling proves decidedly secondary to, if you like, self-feeling, or perhaps emotion.

In a fascinating passage where he talks about the forties film The Best Years of Our Lives, the philosopher Jean Baudrillard proposes that our modern feelings we “delightfully term emotions in order to salvage the fiction of an emotional life.” These are not “affects any more, merely a psychological affectation, having lost all credence in our eyes.” “Alternatively”, he proposes, “they are conversion emotions, betraying the melodrama going on in the body rather than the nuances of the soul.”  The way Baudrillard talks of feelings and emotions is very different from talking about morality and amorality, though it might help explain why many classic films have moral characters and modern films amoral ones. But what is of interest to us here is the ideas of Isa not first and foremost as amoral, but a character of emotions rather than feelings, of impulses over instincts. When for example Isa tells Bahar she should put on another layer of clothing, is he expressing an emotion or offering a feeling: is he not simply feeling the cold himself rather than noticing say Bahar’s goose-pimples?

Yet if Isa remains an unsympathetic character, and yet plausibly attractive to the women whom he comes into contact with, is it not partly because of his emotions? Bahar may have to accept that Isa has little feeling, but when we think about his grand gesture towards Bahar in the film’s third section, it is consistent with Baudrillard’s observation that there is a melodrama going on in the body rather than reflecting the nuances in the soul. After talking to his colleague about the colleague’s relationship, the colleague says he’s thinking of going to Russia, and Isa says he wants to go somewhere hot for the winter: the cold gets into his bones. After his colleague goes off to teach a class we see Isa looking at a picture in a travel brochure and it shows a couple on the beach together, an image not too far removed from earlier shots in the film where we see Isa and Bahar on the beach in the south of Turkey. It is an image that offers Isa two possible thoughts: one towards taking off to sunnier climes on his own; the other to a colder climate where he has heard Bahar, involved in television production, is filming. He chooses the latter option, but this seems almost an impulsive decision based on little more than a brochure image: the film cuts from the brochure to the plane travelling eastwards.

When he arrives in Eastern Turkey where Bahar is working, he books into a hotel and sets about winning her back. This is a prime example of the melodramatic gesture going on in the body that Baudrillard talks about, as Isa insists that he wants once again to be with her. As they sit in a café in this small border town, Isa shows her the pictures from their summer holiday and gives her a gift. Later he joins her in the work van that she is taking her break in and tells her that he has changed, that he wants to make her happy and that she should quit the job and leave with him for Istanbul the next day.

In both scenes, in the café and in the van, Bahar seems vulnerable to Isa’s charms in a fundamental sense. In the café her face looks pained and her nerves on edge, and in the van she cries as she realises that Isa still very much has a hold over her emotions. She asks him if after they split up he slept with the woman he had slept with during their relationship, and he says no, though the viewer knows otherwise. That night after work she goes to his room and they once again become close, yet in the morning Isa asks when she has to start working. It seems like he wants to get rid of her already, and yet hadn’t he previously said that he wanted her to leave for Istanbul with him that very day? The grand gesture of going all the way to the border of Turkey and wooing her again dissolves into the careless gesture of trying to pack her off to work.

Ceylan’s film is an impressive examination of Isa’s impulses over his instincts, his emotions over his feelings. At the beginning of this piece we quoted Kafka’s diary entry where what energy and feeling Kafka had in him he believed he needed to reserve for writing. In a letter to Felice (Kafka’s muse and on/off fiancée from 1912 to 1917) less than twelve months after the diary entry, Kafka says “forgive me: all the misery I inflict upon you stems from one source: my love for you. If at times I hurt your feelings without realizing it, then keep looking for the reason in my love, and there, on some confounded path (that’s just the way I am), you are sure to find it.” Kafka was so intensely focused on the complexity of his emotions that he never could quite commit to his feelings, but retrospectively we can of course say this came from the deepest of instincts, an instinct that said writing mattered more than all the other aspects in his life, and that posterity has done nothing to contradict. But what about Isa, whose impulses are paramount and who may continue to ruin others’ lives through an inability to understand his own? On the DVD extras Ceylan says that though the film stars Ceylan and his own partner (Ebru Ceylan) the film isn’t autobiographical, but that the emotional states happen to be. Like Kafka, Ceylan searches out an autobiography of the emotions; he attempts to understand the emotions and turn a character of impulses into a work of instincts.


©Tony McKibbin