It’s an old debate whether criticism is a literary genre by itself or not. The more general question is whether we should take literary criticism as art or as science? It’s also intriguing that nobody has ever tried to categorize the theory of literature as a literary or an artistic genre. How can we explain this double standard against literary criticism and in favor of literary theory? Why do people understand theory as a scientific or a philosophical genre, while they often perceive criticism as art, provided that both genres are meta-texts on other texts?
The answer is in the bipolarity of literary criticism. Though much work has been done to establish an objectivist criticism since the early 20th century, the critics did not put a clear distance between themselves and the subject they chose to write on. Most of the texts that are literary criticisms are subjectivist notes on what the critic likes or doesn’t like in a particular literary piece. Most critics chose to turn their articles into private conversations aimed at convincing the reader of what the critic believes to be true about the text.
On the other pole of literary criticism, there stands the narrow methodological narrative of a certain critical school such as formalism, structuralism, psychoanalysis, literary Marxism, feminism, reader-response criticism, New Criticism, et cetera. This second type of literary criticism relies on a certain literary theory or philosophy and generally tries to exclude the subjectivist perception of the critic from the criticism context, which was argued to be an impossible target since it’s the critic in real life who writes criticism. Thus, in the postmodern era, a third path appeared for the literary critic as a subject who explains the literary text depending on a scientific theory but is also aware of the fact that human perception is not objective, and a text may be perceived differently in different contexts.
The first pole of literary criticism implying that all criticism is what the critic as a human being likes or does not like about an author and a text was represented in Turkey mostly by Nurullah Ataç and his followers. Indeed, nearly all literary critics, or rather the writers writing literary criticism in Turkey are Ataç’s followers. On the other hand, a single school of critics, the objectivist critics of the 1950s and 1960s, especially Hüseyin Cöntürk and his younger colleagues, represented the second pole of criticism, the objectivist state. Cöntürk warred against subjectivism in the Turkish literary circles from the mid-1950s until 1970, when he decided to end his career as a literary critic, though he never stopped reading, taking notes on or studying literary works.
Cöntürk was born in 1918 in western Izmir province to a poor family of Cretan migrants. After taking elementary and secondary education in Izmir, he enrolled at the Civil Engineering department of the School of Higher Engineering, which later transformed into Istanbul Technical University (ITÜ) in Istanbul. He graduated in 1941 after a six-year education combined with his graduate study. He served his military duty for two years, after which he worked as an engineer for 44 years from 1944 until 1986 when he retired.
Cöntürk started his career as an engineer for the government's road management department which sent him to the United States in 1952 to study road hydrology. After the completion of his studies, he became one of the first hydroelectricity engineers of Turkey. Cöntürk later worked as the hydrology expert of his department, where he became the project manager. Cöntürk also worked for the electricity projects department from 1963 until 1986.
Even though he was a very successful engineer, Cöntürk’s personal aim was to become a literary critic. He began taking interest in literature in his school years. He adored French author Andre Gide in high school. Gide influenced him by his carpe diem thought, which is to be the man of the moment and not thinking about the past or future. Besides, Cöntürk was an atheist like Gide. He didn’t believe in tradition, faith or any other institutional ideology. He used to tell us that he was “an ambassador among ideologies,” though his way of life and thoughts showed signs of a liberal and secular approach.
Before he began to publish his early articles in 1955, Cöntürk silently read literary theory and criticism for 10 years, particularly in English, which served as an intellectual weapon for him since he could follow the trends of literary criticism in the West. Sometimes, he called himself a snob and told me, “You and I can do that snobbism because we can read in English.” Reading in English helped him avoid being a typical part of the Turkish literary circles, which he liked to call “parties.”
Even in his initial pieces, Cöntürk was very conscious and programmed as a critic. He aimed at defining an independent literary criticism field and separate criticism from essay writing and literature in general. The first volume of criticism he published carried the title “Eleştirmeden Önce” (“Before Making Criticism”), which includes articles where he gives a description of basic concepts he was going to use in his later criticism. He proposed that the language of criticism should be rationalistic and separate from the general language just like the language of algebra differentiates itself as an independent language. The algebra metaphor would accompany Cöntürk his entire life.
Cöntürk was under the influence of the Anglo-Saxon New Criticism approach, which offers to look at literary texts without reference to its author’s biography. Formalism and techniques of the New Criticism can also be seen in Cöntürk’s writings. However, Cöntürk was not a simple follower of the aforementioned critical approach. Especially in his writings published in the “Yordam” journal in the late 1960s, Cöntürk announced that Turkish criticism was in its third phase and the circle of young critics around him should become a third party against the old clash between the subjectivist and objectivist approaches. The first phase was Nurullah Ataç’s subjectivist essay writing style, while the second phase was the objectivist attempts of Asım Bezirci and Hüseyin Cöntürk.
According to Cöntürk, his previous books and articles were addressed to critics rather than readers of literature. Now, he offered a progressive style that should combine the critic’s subjectivism as an author addressing the literary audience and his objectivist methodical writing. On the other hand, Cöntürk was not a successful literary author in achieving the task he assigned himself. I suppose Eser Gürson, Cöntürk’s best disciple and friend, was better at writing for the general audience from a methodical and objectivist position when analyzing literary texts.
Cöntürk stopped writing in 1970 because of the defamation campaign against him handled by leftist literary circles, who refused Cöntürk’s cruel objectivism that hit some leftist celebrities in poetry. Cöntürk’s attempt to write a critical dictionary of contemporary poets led to huge protests among the leftist authors since he neglected social protocols and didn’t hesitate to criticize any poetry that he thought was bad. The “Şairler Sözlüğü” (“Dictionary of Poets”), published in various journals in installments, marked the end of Cöntürk’s 15-year writing career. He continued his studies in silence, where many younger authors found an opportunity to meet him in person and discuss literature and criticism.
In the early 2000s, Cöntürk’s name became relevant again and his complete work was published in two big volumes, which is one of the most precious resources of modern Turkish literary criticism. Cöntürk died of cancer on June 22, 2003, in the capital Ankara.
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