Thursday, 19 May 2011

Holiday Snapshots (2): F-16s, Derrida and Little Boys

Snapshot 3: Knock, knock, knocking on Europe’s Door
It’s Tuesday morning and I’m lying beside the pool in the warm Aegean sun, thinking of nothing in particular and enjoying the experience. Then there’s a distinctive space-filling roar and a fighter-plane zooms across the sky. I remember that noise – we had it regularly in Western Germany up to the fall of the wall – and, looking up, I see the familiar form of an F-16 to the west, flying south.

Many others follow that day. I wonder idly whether World War III has broken out and I (blissing out in holiday lotus-eater land) haven’t heard anything about it. Thinking about it a bit more, I realise that they could also be flying off to try to make Ghadaffi’s life in Libya a bit more uncomfortable. Or maybe it’s just a day of training flights and the Turkish air force is taking a testosterone fuelled regular opportunity to remind the Greeks that they are there. It wouldn’t be all that surprising; these are two countries not exactly in love with each other, even if they both share a common NATO membership.

On a large general scale, the history of Europe from Neolithic times to the Middle Ages can be seen against the background of repeated large movements of peoples, generally from the East to the West. Many of the nations and peoples now inhabiting areas of Europe originally came from somewhere else, including the various Celtic peoples (from Scotland to Galicia in Spain), Anglo-Saxons, Franks (French), Hungarians, Bulgarians, Albanians and most (if not all) of the Slavic peoples. These recurrent waves of invasion (often called by the German term Volkerwanderung), while often giving rise to great upheavals and chaos (the most famous being the collapse of the Roman Empire), eventually led to the settlement and integration of the newcomers within the general European culture.

With one exception – the last wave. Around 950 years ago, the Seljuk Turks erupted into Anatolia, temporarily replacing the hegemony of Constantinople over most of Asia Minor. They were eventually pushed back but their successors, the Ottoman Turks, succeeded in taking over all of Anatolia, finally capturing Constantinople in 1453, thus putting an end to the Greek culture which had dominated much of the area now known as Turkey for two thousand years.

Experts believe that the various groups described as Turkic peoples had their origins around the Altai mountains in Central Asia, where Russia, Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan come together. Like many other groups of steppe nomads they moved westwards. Having conquered Byzantium, the Ottomans continued to push westwards, conquering Greece and most of the Balkans and, under Suleiman the Magnificent (1494 – 1566), even besieging Vienna in 1529.

Suleiman’s Empire was one of the most civilized areas in the world at the time – it is, therefore, somewhat ironic that his push west is one of the major components of the western European stereotype of the Turks as bloodthirsty savages. On the one cloudy day of our holiday, Lara (my daughter) and I walked through the ruins of a fortress he had built in Sığacık as part of his campaign to throw the militant order of church knights, whose piracy in the Aegean was seriously annoying him, out of Rhodes. He succeeded and they moved their base to another Mediterranean island to become the Knights of Malta.

Turkey has been an associate member of the EU since 1963 and its formal application to join the Union as a full member is now 24 years old. Negotiations are creeping on interminably and, despite all sorts of official statements of positive intent, it does not look like they will be brought to a conclusion at any time in the foreseeable future. Opinion polls show a majority against Turkish accession within the EU. Put brutally and bluntly, it seems that Europe does not really want Turkey – never did and never will. The ongoing difficulties regarding the integration of large sections of the immigrant Turkish communities in many Western European countries are not helping.

In the end, I suspect a large component of the problem Europe has had, and still has with Turkey has to do with the fact that the country is overwhelmingly Muslim, despite its constitutional structure as a secular republic installed by Ataturk (and under the moderate Islamist Erdogan – Turkey’s current Prime Minister – sometimes brought into question). If the Turks had embraced the Byzantine Christ rather than Muhammad’s Allah, I believe that they would have been accepted as Europeans long ago. Recent polls in Turkey show a cooling of enthusiasm among Turks for the whole EU project. Can you really blame them?

I’m not sure. I have my own problems with Islam and many attitudes identified with Islamic culture. Still, as far as EU accession goes, even from a realpolitik point of view, I’m inclined to remember Lyndon Johnson’s aphorism about it being better to have someone you’re not completely sure of inside the tent pissing out rather than outside the tent pissing in. Even as a tourist visiting the country, I have seen enough to realise that it is a complex, sometimes contradictory mix of modernity and tradition, Islam and secularism. And very many lovely, friendly, very welcoming people, who are almost pathetically grateful if you manage to stammer out even merhaba [hello] or tesekür ederim [thank you] in their own language.

Snapshot 4: Derrida, Différance and Four Year Old Boys
It is afternoon and once more I’m lying by the pool. Occasionally I’m active enough to read a few pages of a Peter F. Hamilton science fiction novel, but most of the time I simply lie with my eyes closed or watch my grandson playing with some other children he has met here. Lara is more productive. She has an oral exam on deconstruction coming up next month and is reading Derrida.

“I think I understand what he’s saying all right,” she says. “Basically, everything is already a construction – in that sense, you can’t get beyond the ‘text’, because even language itself is a construction.”

“That’s what I like so much of the game he plays with the word différance. There’s the inference in it that meaning is always deferred, you never really get to the “thing-in-itself” Husserl was always looking for. It’s always interpretation. And then there’s always difference as well …”

“That goes even farther,” she breaks in. “The word différance is an invention of Derrida’s. It sounds the same as the French différence, it’s only when you see it written that you realise that it’s something else. He uses this to show how words themselves are already a construction. He even says that you find different meanings every time you reread a text.”

“We create our own meaning,” I say. “Individually and communally. In that sense, Derrida’s thinking follows on that of Camus. Interesting, that; Camus was a pied noir too, an Algerian Frenchman, just like Derrida. I wonder if that’s a train of thought worth pursuing …
If you ask me, most of this kind of stuff is only a footnote on Kant anyway. He was the one who initially posited our field of meaning as existing in the phenomenon, the point of meeting between the “thing-in-itself” and “subjective” perception. Husserl and Heidegger went on from that, as did the French existentialists …”

“Papa, maybe you should do the exam instead of me. You can talk about this kind of stuff much better.”

“Talk? Waffle, you mean. Anyway, I already have my degree in philosophy. Besides, if I were to impersonate you I’d have to shave my beard and I’m not doing that!
You’ll do fine. All you have to do is just throw about the slogans and palaver. That’s what most continental philosophers do anyway; it’s one of the reasons why the British analysts get so annoyed with them. Though they’re just as bad in their own way.”

I look at Ryan – her four year old son, my grandson. He’s having a great time with two other little boys, the three of them chasing each other around the pool, whooping with delight. Right now, Ryan has joined forces with Leo, who’s French. They call out excitedly to each other. The fact that they don’t understand each other’s languages doesn’t seem to bother them. They’re having fun and, at four, you don’t let something like a language barrier get in the way of that.

Lara is watching them too. We both smile.

“Look at them,” I say. “They don’t have any trouble communicating, even if they can’t use language. Maybe you just have to be four years old to finally get beyond the text …”

* * * * *
The holiday is now over and I’m back at work. If, as Derrida once said, all is context, then I’m now in another context, one I find, subjectively, a lot less pleasurable. And the EU is a context (or not) for Turkey and Turkey itself is a context for those who live and find their identity there. As it was for me, for a much too short week. Though if I am honest, part of the context which gave shape to the time I spent in Club Atlantis was its limited, temporary nature. The time-limited break from normal routine is one of the things which characterises the very idea of holiday. And there will, hopefully, be others in the future.

Photos by the author with the exception of:


  1. Welcome back! Love reading your stuff and look forward to more. :-)

  2. Excellent read, Francis! Lots to think about and enjoy in this post. I loved the observations you and Lara made about the boys playing together, not letting language stand in their way to engaging with one-another. I remember vividly similar childhood experiences, actually, different countries; different settings; essentially all children have the drive to play, in common. Lots of smiles here.


  3. Have skimmed through this so far, may come back to read & say more.

    On Derrida I have yet to read anything that speaks to me at all. He seems like the enemy when it comes to intelligent criticism and student sanity. Would it help me to read his source writings? I hope you say no. Nietzsche is difficult but seems totally relevant to me today. I feel I know what Derrida wants to say from all the slogans and palaver.

  4. Fun to see you in the water with your grandson.

    We learn so much with our grandchildren. A lot more than with philosophers!

    Take care, Francis. All the best!

  5. Reading this again, it struck me how easy you are finding it, as an Irishman living in Germany, to embrace Europe and be embraced by it. As an Englishman, Australian by birth, I think England should have stayed loyal to its Commonwealth, whilst maintaining of course friendly links with Europe (which I don't really see it part of). Europe is very close but foreign, and imposed on the people against our will. This is despite the fact that I studied French and Italian literature at university--- or is perhaps reinforced by that experience. I don't even consider myself British any more--even that is too federal! Just English. Unapologetically.

    Sorry for such a curmudgeonly comment. Glad you had a good holiday.

  6. It would absolutely be a better thing if nations, ethnic groups, and the followers of different religions could allow one another mutual respect but sad as it is to admit, we don't seem to be wired that way as a species. Things get worse as our burgeoning population puts more pressure on the space we have. Even though little children usually do get on well together they need to be looked after so they'll survive to adulthood. By then they have been well and truly indoctrinated into whatever culture birthed them. Then begins the process of questioning those belief systems for the luckier among us.

    Thanks for another excellent essay and things to consider. You and your grandson looked to be having a wonderful time.

  7. Welcome back Francis, being a grandparent is so much fun isn't it :) Great pictures and post,

  8. Regarding Derrida (or Post-modernists rather), Richard Dawkins has quoted Peter Medewar as saying:

    Style has become an object of first importance, and what a style it is! For me it has a prancing, high-stepping quality, full of self-importance; elevated indeed, but in the balletic manner, and stopping from time to time in studied attitudes, as if awaiting an outburst of applause. It has had a deplorable influence on the quality of modern thought."

    Which having completed an undergraduate degree studying the Humanities (I'm not sure if you use the same term for literature and the like in Europe and Ireland) I can definitely agree with. Yet still, I do have time for Derrida, because I think waiding through so much of his studious navel-gazing you can nevertheless find some really relevant reflections on the exercise of power.

    Reflecting on your own reflections of modern Turkey in modern Europe and the politics of the last thirty years, I can't help feeling that the world today doesn't have the same internationalism as the world of the eighties. We live in such a fragmented place nowadays and the great international dreams of the twentieth century have been forgotten. From your own perspective would you agree?

  9. Thank you all for your comments!

    Sometimes - when you're lucky - you read a comment which starts fireworks going off in your head. This happened to me here - twice, in fact.

    Vincent, I don't regard your comment as curmudgeonly at all. It started me thinking again about identity (something which keeps coming up for me recently), nationalism, patriotism and a whole collection of tropes/memes which seem to come together under this category.

    Akseli's comment (as well as Sphinx's and Susan's to an extent too) just threw a whole lot more fuel onto the fire. There's so much going through my head as a result of these that I think I'll have to take up the issues and ideas they raise in a new post - hopefully in the next week or so.

    Just one reaction to your comment on Derrida, Akseli: It is a sad fact that most professional philosophers feel a professional calling to be obtuse, dense, wordy and inaccessible. This is as true for the British analytical tradition as it is for the Continental one - just try reading Anscome or Phillipa Foot! There are a few honourable exceptions - like Dennett (analytic) or Sloterdijk (continental). Another problem is that I think analytic and continental philosophers seem fated to dislike and misunderstand each other - perhaps it's a case of different language games, as Wittgenstein (who had a foot in both camps, in my view) would have put it.

    Any more I'll leave to that promised post! :-)

  10. Jeez, how do you manage to talk abou Derrida like that? In my wannabe philosophical period (approx. when I was 18-20), I read Popper and Wittgenstein with mucho gusto. Then, I tried Nietzsche's Zarathustra ( unreadable shite as far as I was concerned). And when I arrived in France, I tried to read a short essay by Derrida. I reached the third paragraph and gave up, rather upset. He stated that "the centre is not the centre" and I thought that to be the intellectually most unhonest statement ever read (either he was wrong, as the centre is always the centre) or he was playing with words. I then tried out "L'anti-Œdipe". I ened up telling myself that I'm surely not intelligent enough to grip the meaning of even one sentence. So I bow to your superioir inteligence in all modesty!


Your comments are, of course, welcome. I've had to reinstall captchas recently as - like most other bloggers - I was being plagued by spambots.


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