The Man Who Knows ‘This Country’

Written by Gülcan Tezcan

A thought worker who called out the truth in times when it took courage to be a thinker with intellectual decency, Cemil Meriç was one of those who chose not to be the “Janissary of the West” but a philosopher of this country.

One of the cornerstones of our reckoning with the East and the West, Cemil Meriç describes himself in his ‘Journal’ as “a solitary, inquisitive thought worker who has devoted his life to Turkish scholarship.” As a true intellectual, he constantly pursues the truth. He reads and inquires all the time, asking plenty of questions. And his readers are those who seek ways to break their molds. That is why Cemil Meriç wouldn’t just remain as an influence in his lifetime, but also an influence on the mindsets and worldviews of following generations. Cemil Meriç is an intellectual who can only be found by those who seek him out; only those who follow his light can see the truth that is distilled through his alembic.

A thought worker who called out the truth in times when it took courage to be a thinker with intellectual decency, he was one of those who chose not to be the “Janissary of the West” but a philosopher of this country. Since we are a nation who remembers their intellectuals and those who have enlightened their spiritual worlds only on theirbirth and death anniversaries, he hasn’t drawn much attention from large masses after his death, as was the case in his lifetime. But everyone concerned by the troubles of this geography, and has questions about their identity, past, yesterday and now, happens to come by Cemil Meriç.

It is difficult to say that Cemil Meriç is appreciated sufficiently today who, with his statements, writings and references, accurately diagnosed our social and political diseases, and suggested treatment methods just like Kemal Tahir, İdris Küçükömer and Necip Fazıl. In an atmosphere where intellectual decency gains more importance every passing day, our longing for Cemil Meriç also grows.

Keeping his distance from “isms” which he described as straightjackets for perceptions, there is no doubt that Cemil Meriç was not just an intellectual, an author of essays or a lecturer… He was a school on his own. Moreover, he was one of the rare names who managed to bring together young people from opposite poles, right and left, who were not likely to convene in the backdrop of 1970’s Turkey. So many figures were present in that circle of conversation: from Murat Belge to Cevat Özkaya, Mehmet Şevket Eygi, Mustafa Özel to Berke Vardar, Hulki Aktunç… Under his mentorship, a generation learnt about the East, West, enlightenment, civilization and how to properly think on concepts. As most of his students volunteered to be his assistant and assisted Cemil Meriç in continuing his intellectual journey, they seized the chance to witness his rich world of thought personally. Living a difficult life, the ideas, writings, opinions he put forward were subjected to a conspiracy of silence, but Cemil Meriç insistently continues to read, write and carries on his colossal search, against all odds. That’s because at the end of this search is finding yourself, who you are.

In his recollections of Cemil Meriç, Dursun Gürlek mentions the Meriç school as follows: “I came by the most beautiful of conversations, most interesting of polemics and the perfect warmth of a council of friends there. People of diverse professions and dispositions would gravitate towards this master of letters. Every time I visited him, I would meet new faces”.

There is no doubt that the most prominent feature that makes Cemil Meriç strong is his “independence”. Cemil Meriç summarizes the responsibility of the intellectual as follows: “An intellectual is not the aide of a community. He does not receive instructions from any power groups. He may not be affiliated with a party, but he is bound to history and the society in which he lives. That is to say he has duties as a citizen; he must accept certain battles, he must face certain dangers. He has to become the consciousness of an era. Another duty of his; looking into every truth, tearing down the masks of every lie, showing the truth to the masses. Sometimes he will be the watchman on the fire tower, sometimes the guide of the ship that embarks on high seas. Turning a blind eye in the pretext of dignity of thought while people are being slaughtered on the streets, is betrayal to intellect”.

Cemil Meriç is also the harshest, sharpest of critics of intellectuals in Turkey. He says: “All insane asylums of the world are centers of sanity compared to the skulls of our intelligentsia. The advocation of freedom by people who give fatwas for every murder, who trample freedom of thought when it is against their interest, is the expression of their view of themselves as a privileged community, almost a state within the state.” And he summarizes the way to become a real intellectual with the following lines: “The way to save ourselves from vileness is proving our dignity. Dignity means being conscious and making sacrifices. Being conscious means not being attached to any church, refusing any tutelage and opening one’s doors to every light. Sacrifice is facing up to any ordeal, even death, in the name of values one believes in. The person who is worthy of respect is the one who thinks with his own mind and does not hold back from shouting out his thoughts.”

In a way, reading Cemil Meriç is reading Turkey… As what is distilled through the alembic of this great thinker provides a guide for understanding the crises of Westernization and disidentification Turkey has been undergoing for the last two centuries, they also constitute a road map that is valid every period in the country’s and intelligentsia’s search for identity.

Cemil Meriç (1916 – 1987) studied at the Department of French Language and Literature at Istanbul University Faculty of Literature. After his graduation, he worked as a French teacher. Later, he worked at the university he had graduated from. In 1955 his illness progressed and he lost his eyesight. He continued his work until his
death with the help of his daughter, Ümit Meriç. His writings were published in many newspapers and literary journals. Taking up translation from French in his youth, Meriç attracted attention with his Balzac and Victor Hugo translations. Pondering over, questioning and possessing a groundbreaking perspective on Western and Eastern civilizations, the master author received Turkish National Culture Foundation Award twice with his works as he shared his accumulation. He left behind a giant corpus that includes works such as ‘Hint Edebiyatı’ (Hindu Literature), ‘Bu Ülke’ (This Country), ‘Mağaradakiler’ (Those in the Caves), ‘Işık Doğudan Gelir’ (Light Comes from the East) and ‘Kültürden İrfana’ (From Culture to Wisdom).

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Gülcan Tezcan

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