Thematic Reading and East West Theme in Turkish Literature

by Said Dağlı
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On the advantages, disadvantages and methodology of thematic reading, Said Dağlı has summarized his notes taken in a course at Bilkent University.


I’m currently auditing Etienne Charierre’s course, “East and West in the Turkish Literature”, in the Department of Turkish Literature at Bilkent University. For half an hour, just before discussing Tanpınar’s Huzur, we discussed the advantages and disadvantages of thematic reading and specifically reading on the East and West theme. I have written up my notes and want to share them in a nutshell.

Yet, it is important to note that, all the things that I will share is derived from my notes. They don’t bind anyone but me, although they are not all my thoughts.

Thematic Reading

I guess, the most obvious advantage of thematic reading is its ease to focus on the theme at hand, instead of rumbling around the whole text. When you know what you are looking for, if you have the necessary tools to do it in a healthy way, the path to the answer is much clearer. Besides, it is also practical. Thematic reading allows the researcher to create solid and understandable outcomes. With thematic reading, to make the connections is easier and more probable.

Yet, it should be noted that thematization is not neutral. To read selectively -to choose what to read and opt out- is an intervention of the reader to the text. As it makes focusing easier, it also creates the basis of prejudices. To be able to focus easily, sometimes, means overlooking to the parts, loosing the context. Apart from these pitfalls, there is also the danger of essentializing the theme. Everything may not be about the theme at hand, although, at some point, it seems that way. Before doing thematic reading, it is important to be aware of these traps.

How to do Thematic Reading

Thematic reading cannot exist without close reading. In a sense, it is a surgical reading. To cut the piece into pieces, to analyze it and to bring them back… I usually start to look for my keywords, just before the surgical reading. Finding the keywords in the text usually enables me to create a map -a selective map- of the text. Finally, it is important to read against the general idea, to read differently, to read against the apparent theme. Texts do not always reveal their secrets at the first glance (tribute to Derrida). What is hidden in the small scale may not be seen at the surface.

Thematic Reading on East and West

To understand. It is the basic function of humanities and social sciences. To understand the history and the nature of Turkey, East and West theme is a must-read. Turkey is stuck between east and west, between the idea of east and the idea of west. Furthermore, to read this theme enables the people of this country to understand themselves. It is not only the geographical position of Turkey that is stuck, it is also the minds of people. In addition to these, East and West theme is also enthusing as it is alive and fluid. It breathes, eats and constantly changes.

Yet again, thematic reading has its drawbacks. One of the most common traps that researchers fall into is simplification. It is an overlooked theme, people started to see everything about the east-west dichotomy. It, somehow, started to be seen explicitly. Research studies started to repeat each other, again and again. It is essentialized. Therefore, it is significant to recognize its complex context and to be aware of the simplification trap. Additionally, researchers should keep in mind that east, west and east-west are culturally defined, culturally redefined.  

Why do I Like Studying This Theme?

My street in Gölbaşı, a southern suburb of Ankara, is dividing the neighborhood into two fronts. Houses at the right-hand side are built by a conservative and religious cooperative. People there abide cultural and spiritual codes. On the left-hand side, houses are built by the cooperative of retired military officers, the secular ones. Right and left, they see each other as ogres and monsters, unaware each other’s life, happiness and sorrows, births and deaths.

As I mentioned above, thematic reading on east-west enables one to understand itself and its environment. It is the constant clash of ambiguous identities what defines us, unfortunately. I must understand what happened, what is happening and what will happen, to draw my route. In the sense of this theme, literature, history and politics are holding hands. They are different, yet, inseparable. To understand myself and my environment, I want to chase this theme through the means of political science, letters and humanities.

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