“What Can I Do?” —Gündüz Vassaf’s Call for Action in a Time of Rampant Pessimism, Part 1

by Humera Afridi

111103130600On a recent weekend morning, I spoke with eminent writer and intellectual Gündüz Vassaf at his home on the island of Sedef in Turkey. I was calling from Manhattan, New York, via Skype, and the distances of space and time between us collapsed to make way for a conversation that felt like a natural continuation of a felicitous meeting earlier in the summer.

Vassaf, the author of 14 critically acclaimed books of nonfiction, fiction, essays and poetry, had just returned from a brisk swim in the Sea of Marmara. It was a chilly 20 degrees Celsius on the island, the sun suspended low in the late October sky, but that did not deter him. I sense there is not much that can restrain Vassaf from following his heart. His is a quest for freedom—in work, in life, in mind, in body—a right that he asserts not just for himself, but, judiciously for all sentient beings, and does so with a rare ebullience, one balanced with wisdom.

In his 1987 bestseller, Prisoners of Ourselves, Vassaf writes:

“This book is about freedom. It's about freedom we avoid, freedom that we fear to have in our everyday lives. Even with our simple daily acts we subject ourselves to a totalitarian order of our creation and subservience.

My first idea was to write a book about our accommodation of totalitarian regimes. Throughout history, millions across the world have experienced changes in regimes from a relatively democratic state to a totalitarian order.

In the end and over time, we acquiesce to these regimes. We internalize the new norms. The very few who don't, become martyrs, unknown patients in mental hospitals, forgotten prisoners of conscience.

I did not write a book about the above because I realized that also in “democratic” regimes we can become prisoners of ourselves.”

Prisoners of Ourselves explores the psychology of totalitarianism in every day life and is a profound elucidation of human consciousness. It sold over 70,000 copies when it was published and quickly rose to the stature of a contemporary classic in Turkey. Vassaf has written many other works in between this astute and marvelously prescient book of lyrical essays—one which I find illuminates the present historical moment—and his most recent, What Can I Do? that was released, serendipitously, a week after the recent failed coup attempt in Turkey.

The evolution of Vassaf's ideas in the span of 29 years—between the publication of Prisoners of Ourselves and What Can I Do?—reflects a new global consciousness that has been in formation in the world. He quotes Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet—to live free as a tree but as brotherly as a forest—to evoke the trajectory of his changed perspective from an individual introspective stance to a broader, communal one over the course of time.

“When I wrote Prisoners of Ourselves, it was a yearning to be a tree, a liberated individual. That yearning still exists, but it has joined up with the sense of community, of living together as a forest. Then I was questioning things that one does without questioning—like falling in love. We don't question the state of being in love, we may question the person. Those things I tried to work out in that book. Now, it's more than that. Now, it's in order to establish a more liberated environment for us we have to deal with the environment. The environment being the climate, the people who cause climate change, economics, politics, everything else.”

As of yet, Prisoners of Ourselves is the only one of Gündüz Vassaf's books available in English—for he wrote it in English. Although his prolific writings are available in several languages, they have yet to be translated into English, the otherwise dominant language of the western hemisphere—an omission which, surely, bespeaks the impoverished state of literature in translation. It signals, too, a terrible blindness in our cultural attitude for failing to care enough to acknowledge voices and ideas from around the world, especially at a time when the world is both more connected and more riven.

Born in 1946 in the United States, Gündüz Vassaf is a psychologist, author and professor. He is peripatetic and divides his time between several countries, frequently new ones, in pursuit of the challenge he made to regularly immerse himself in a new language and culture. Orhan Pamuk has described Gündüz Vassaf as the “freest spirit of any Turkish writer.” An interviewer on Radio Prague, during the Prague Writers' Festival in 2012, states, “Amongst intellectuals in Turkey, the psychologist and author Gündüz Vassaf is a bit of a rock-star…” Vassaf was a founding member of the Istanbul chapter of Amnesty International and, years ago, used to teach at Bogazaci University from where he resigned after the 1980 military coup. When I asked if his resignation had been an act of protest, he replied:

“I couldn't fulfill my duties as an academic when martial law started interfering with what books we had in the university library, with what courses, and how they were going to be taught. We don't tell the soldiers how to fight their battles. The university lost whatever little autonomy and academic freedom it had. It lost it totally.”

Vassaf's newest book What Can I Do? is timely, addressing a world worn down by pessimism, urging people, especially the youth towards action and engagement as panaceas. The book has received a vibrant reception in Turkey for its uplifting message and is garnering increasing popularity on social media. What Can I Do? grew out of a talk on peace that Vassaf was invited to deliver in September 2015 at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara. It concentrates on the role of young people in recent history.

“In 1968, we students in the US were part of a hedonistic generation. We weren't so much for peace—in spite of the peace signs—we just didn't want to go to war and die, whereas the present generation is really for peace. They understand peace. They are not being told to go to war, there's no conscription. They abhor war. Young people for the first time in the history of our species don't want to become soldiers anymore… Conscientious objection has become something legal. That's a major change. So, peace is no longer a dream, really. People want to be in a state of peace. It's not being anti-war as it used to be—there's a yearning for peace.”

What Can I Do? carries a provocative subtitle: I have no Country. I Have No Religion. I Have No Gender. Freedom is an overarching theme in Vassaf's work, and I ask him how he manages to maintain this ‘state of freedom,' to remain attuned to it as a writer and a thinker, even in times of political upheaval, certainly, at a time when so many of Turkey's writers, intellectuals and teachers are under the panoptic eye of the state.

“I don't feel it,” he states matter-of-factly. “I don't care in a way that I suppose you feel the eye of your parents if you're a thousand miles away, having your first beer or your first cigarette, but you don't care. It's that sort of feeling. They can do with me what they want. I personally don't have that fear. Once you're aware and accept the absurdity of existence, that anything can happen anywhere… Fear is unhealthy; I don't fear. If it's going to rain, I can't stop that rain.”

In Prisoner of Ourselves Vassaf writes:

“Freedom in its ultimate sense is the ability to live with fear, the courage to face fear, confront fear… One loses one's freedom when one gives in to fear and is afraid to act, afraid to follow one's vision.”

I am intrigued as to how Vassaf has developed his immunity to fear, liberated himself. He tells me a story of the time he worked as a guard at the age of seventeen in a mental health institution in New Hampshire. The horrors he witnessed there at a young age—”it was bedlam”—”seeing how bad human existence can become” and “how bad institutions can become” struck him to the core, as did his later work with Amnesty, learning about torture. “That may have taken away some of the fear—if you've seen the worst what else can you see?”


(The second part of this article will appear next month)