Tristesse is not a pain that affects a solitary individual [like melancholy]; hüzün and tristesse both suggest a communal feeling, an atmosphere and a culture shared by millions. But the words and the feelings they describe are not identical, and if we are to pinpoint the difference it is not enough to say that Istanbul is much richer than Delhi or São Paolo. (If you go to the poor neighborhoods, the cities and the forms poverty takes are in fact all too similar.) The difference lies in the fact that in Istanbul the remains of a glorious past civilization are everywhere visible. No matter how ill-kept, no matter how neglected or hemmed in they are by concrete monstrosities, the great mosques and other monuments of the city, as well as the lesser detritus of empire in every side street and corner—the little arches, fountains, and neighborhood mosques—inflict heartache on all who live among them.
These are nothing like the remains of great empires to be seen in western cities, preserved like museums of history and proudly displayed. The people of Istanbul simply carry on with their lives amid the ruins. Many western writers and travelers find this charming. But for the city’s more sensitive and attuned residents, these ruins are reminders that the present city is so poor and confused that it can never again dream of rising to its former heights of wealth, power, and culture. It is no more possible to take pride in these neglected dwellings, which dirt, dust, and mud have blended into their surroundings, than it is to rejoice in the beautiful old wooden houses that as a child I watched burn down one by one….
The tristesse that Lévi-Strauss describes is what a Westerner might feel as he surveys those vast poverty-stricken cities of the tropics, as he contemplates the huddled masses and their wretched lives. But he does not see the city through their eyes. Tristesse implies a guilt-ridden Westerner who seeks to assuage his pain by refusing to let cliché and prejudice color his impressions. Hüzün, on the other hand, is not a feeling that belongs to the outside observer. To varying degrees, classical Ottoman music, Turkish popular music, especially the arabesque that became popular during the 1980s, are all expressions of this emotion, which we feel as something between physical pain and grief. And Westerners coming to the city often fail to notice it….
Likewise, the hüzün in Turkish poetry after the foundation of the Republic, as it too expresses the same grief that no one can or would wish to escape, an ache that finally saves our souls and also gives them depth. For the poet, hüzün is the smoky window between him and the world. The screen he projects over life is painful because life itself is painful. So it is, also, for the residents of Istanbul as they resign themselves to poverty and depression. Imbued still with the honor accorded it in Sufi literature, hüzün gives their resignation an air of dignity, but it also explains their choice to embrace failure, indecision, defeat, and poverty so philosophically and with such pride, suggesting that hüzün is not the outcome of life’s worries and great losses but their principal cause. So it was for the heroes of the Turkish films of my childhood and youth, and also for many of my real-life heroes during the same period: They all gave the impression that because of this hüzün they’d been carrying around in their hearts since birth they could not appear desirous in the face of money, success, or the women they loved. Hüzün does not just paralyze the inhabitants of Istanbul; it also gives them poetic license to be paralyzed.