Yes! If one thinks about it, you know, looks into it and analyses all this hotchpotch, if you will allow me to call it so, it’s not life but more like a fire in a theatre!(Chekhov  2000)
“This isn’t a life,” complains one of the characters in Winter Sleep, “it’s a fire scene in a stage act.” For all the snow, ice, and wind framing its spectacular scenes, Winter Sleep is a stunning study of fire. Thus, in the film all morality, all sociality, and all economy are destined to disappear in an unforgiving spectacle of fire. This route to hell is paved with acknowledged inspiration from “The Wife,” a story by Chekhov ( 2000) that depicts the “simple and not strained, but cold, empty, and dreary” relations between an estranged couple living under the same roof. In the film, as in Chekhov’s story, the focus is on how sociality is burned down and the characters hit the bottom. Indeed, the film’s success is grounded in its ability to portray volcanic eruptions underneath ice, to reveal the fire beneath the snow.
Winter Sleep (Kış Uykusu) is the latest film from Turkish director and screenwriter Nuri Bilge Ceylan, whose inventive and challenging approach has met with international success.1 Here I critically engage with this film from a social theoretical point of view, focusing on its key themes, which have diagnostic value for social and cultural analysis. Thus, the article seeks to experiment with finding a resonance between social theory and Winter Sleep, tracing the surface between them, oscillating between concepts and cinematic images. Certainly, modern art in general identifies itself as “a form of thought” that makes it difficult to oppose the image and the idea (Badiou 2005: 19). More precisely, therefore, I am interested in tracing the surface between cinematic and social theoretical ideas, their ‘compossibility’. These ideas emerge from the themes that Winter Sleep deals with: religion, the relationship between religion and capitalism, symbolic exchange, and fire as social topology. Organized around these themes, the article aims to articulate the fields of formation, intervention, and intelligibility that arise when and as these themes encounter one another.
I am approaching the film in three ways. First, I am interested in the cinematic images that emerge in Winter Sleep. Second, Ceylan’s films are also very rich in terms of dialogue and monologue, and this is particularly the case in Winter Sleep. Ceylan himself often mentions literature as a significant source of inspiration, especially works by Chekhov, who “has contributed to almost all of my films; indeed, beyond that, he has taught me how to live” (quoted in Aytaç et al. 2014; my translation). Yet, third, one must not limit the discussion of cinema to its visual images or its narrative aspects. What is most important is the way in which cinema relates to ideas. Thus, this article seeks to explore Winter Sleep not only on the basis of what it shows and says on screen but also in terms of how it thinks, how thought emerges in it, and at what points this thought reinforces or clashes with dominant opinions. In Badiou’s (2005: 88) words, I demonstrate how Winter Sleep “lets us travel with a particular idea.”
Money, Debt, and Symbolic Exchange
Winter Sleep’s main protagonist, Aydın, is an aging former actor who moved from Istanbul to Cappadocia after retiring. He runs a business, Hotel Othello, which he has inherited from his family, together with other property that he rents out. His social network is rich and powerful in comparison to the local peasants. He likes giving the impression of being a benevolent landlord but does not hesitate to exercise his power to collect rents. At the same time, he has intellectual ambitions (‘aydın’ means ‘enlightened’ in Turkish). He publishes articles in a local newspaper and is “writing a book, too … History of Turkish Theatre.”2
We first meet him on a cold, snowy day, wandering in the Cappadocian landscape. He enters his hotel, chats with a customer, and walks to the window to look out. The camera approaches him from behind, focusing on his head, as if we were entering his mind. At this moment the title of the film appears on the screen. Winter Sleep is a film about ideas. It presents many philosophical notions through conceptually dense, extravagantly analytical scenes. It is no exaggeration to say that it is “unabashed essay cinema” (Lodge 2014).
Aydın is surrounded by other people, other ideas, and he gradually discovers that “Hell is—other people!” (Sartre  2016). Indeed, most of the characters in the film despise him, especially the other main protagonists, the two women with whom he lives—his middle-aged sister (Necla) and his young wife (Nihal). Necla, recently divorced and grumpy, is a caring sister but slowly turns into a harsh critique of Aydın’s pretentious intellectual mediocrity. Nihal is unhappy about her life and contemplating divorce. She finds refuge in charity work, for which she needs Aydın’s money, in this way paying for her freedom: “Do you know how donating even a little of someone else’s money feels?”
In the first episode of the film, Aydın must obtain a horse for the hotel. With the help of his right-hand man, Hidayet, he finds a horse keeper who promises to catch a wild horse for him. Then they drive to collect rents from some tenants. On the way, Hidayet stops to buy things. Alone in the car, half-bored, Aydın catches the angry gaze of a boy looking at him. He shrugs, unable to bestow any meaning on it. Moving again, Aydın asks Hidayet: “Did the other one pay [the rent] after the warning?” “No. Nothing. The lawyer says we could evict him in two months.” “How? The law protects the tenants.” “Well, Mr Aydın, there are actually lots of things to do.” Hidayet is prepared to use force and violence to make the tenants pay.
In this way, the film confronts the viewer with the ‘banality of evil’ (Arendt 1992). No doubt, one cannot say that Aydın is an ‘evil’ person. Yet for evil to occur, you do not need evil people. Herein lies Hidayet’s (and Aydın’s lawyers’) crucial function in the film: adiaphorization, that is, moral neutralization. Thanks to those individuals, Aydın can engage in the social world without recognizing his own active role in its production. In a capitalist society, after all, sociality is dominated by the logic of exchange, and thus morality ceases to be a register for reflection. Ultimately, money makes difficult the “existence of values as such” (Simmel 1978: 255). Capitalism is a world without values. The only bond between people is naked self-interest, which drowns everything else in the “icy water” of exchange value (Marx and Engels 1848).
Suddenly, Aydın and Hidayet hear a noise: the passenger window is shattered by a stone. Hidayet jumps out of the car to catch the boy who has thrown the stone. Trying to escape, the boy falls in the icy waters of the stream across the road. The boy—the same one who was looking at Aydın angrily in the previous scene—turns out to be the son of a tenant. This scene is rich in symbolism because the cracked window is a sign of what is to come, and the name of the boy is İlyas (the Turkish equivalent of Elijah/Elias), meaning ‘the messiah’. To appreciate the significance of this scene, we must bear in mind the distinction between the linear time of chronology and kairos, the time of the messianic event. Kairos is about ‘seizing’ chronos, the moment of an untimely intervention (Agamben 2005: 69), and, as such, there is a promise involved in it—the promise of the new. Importantly, however, this promise is an “absolutely undetermined mes[s]ianic hope” (Derrida 1994: 81), that is, its content is not determined by or reducible to religious experience. In this sense, the stone cast by İlyas is a stand-in for hope in the film.3
“Best get him home quick before he catches cold,” Hidayet says, so he and Aydın drive to the boy’s home to demand the repair money for the passenger window as well as the rent. While Aydın sits in the car, Hidayet knocks on the door. İlyas’s father, İsmail, opens the door. “Your kid fell in the water,” Hidayet says. “We brought him back quick.” “Where, how?” “Near Issız. He slipped jumping the stream and got wet.” “What was he doing there?” “He was hiding, waiting for our car. He threw a stone and broke our window.” İsmail calls his son. “Did you throw the stone, son?” The boy nods. İsmail slaps his face and says, “Go now.” Aydın is watching them from the car. “How’s that? Happy? Is that all right now? Feel better? A slap for a broken window. Is that enough for you two? Or should I call him back for some more?” asks İsmail. The sacrificial slapping here has no logic in the context of money exchange. If Aydın’s wealth is defined by money as an abstract equivalent, İsmail’s sacrifice is a reminder, or rather a rupture, with that economic rationality. Winter Sleep is hinting that there remain symbolic forces that are still operational within commodified social relations.
At this moment, Hamdi, İsmail’s younger brother who is also the imam (the local priest) of the village, arrives. “What’s all this, İsmail?” “So they’re here to make us pay,” İsmail says. Hidayet protests: “Did I say that? Didn’t I say we brought him home so he wouldn’t get sick?” “Cut it out. You took our fridge and TV for a lousy rent. Isn’t that enough? Now you’re hassling a kid?” İsmail replies. The argument flares up, with İsmail attacking Hidayet. Still watching at a distance, Aydın is frightened and calls Hidayet to the car. Before they leave, Hamdi comes to them. “Hidayet, I’m really sorry. I’m as shocked as you. I don’t know what to say.” Then, looking at Aydın, he continues: “Well … the window’s broken, and we’ll pay for it. We’ll pay the rent as soon as we can, too. We haven’t forgotten … But we’re having a hard time.” Hidayet intervenes: “For God’s sake, Hamdi, drop that talk. We didn’t say anything for months.” “OK, Hidayet, come on,” says Aydın. Hamdi is eager to go on: “But sending a debt collector so suddenly, is that right? You could have talked to us first.” “Come on, Hidayet,” repeats Aydın, now visibly annoyed. Aydın and Hidayet leave. Hamdi is left behind, heading for his home, muttering: “Bastard. Son of a bitch.”
Notably, debt is an uneven relation: although the relationship between the creditor and the debtor is ‘contractual’, an asymmetry of power is always involved (Nietzsche  1996: 45). Money, then, is not merely a means of exchange but a significant component of practices that constitute power. In market exchange, money functions merely as a measure of value. But in the form of capital, it functions as a measure of the value of values. Hence, the power of abstract capital (value producing more value) is not reducible to its market function, to exchange. In this sense, insofar as it is linked to credit (credos), one can say that capitalism not only levels beliefs and desires but also creates them, forming a moral subjectivity. As such, debt becomes a factor of sociality, that is, a dispositif, a technique that imposes a particular conduct, modeling truth and normality by defining power relations. Consequently, abstract money turns into a source of systemic violence that pushes everything into the icy waters of its value form. This is the background against which the events unfold in Winter Sleep.
Vanity, Mediocrity, and Religion
Back at home, Aydın is in his own room, writing. Enter his sister Necla. “Are you writing your column?” “I’m trying to.” “By the way, I read last week’s. I liked it.” “Which one do you mean?” “Urban ugliness in Anatolia. Aesthetic deprivation and so on.” “Right.” “Bravo. How do you come up with interesting ideas every week?” Aydın brings up the topic of his tenant Hamdi. “Who is he? Do I know him?” asks Necla. “No, you wouldn’t … Just a crooked, shabby guy.” He continues: “I don’t know … Shouldn’t men of God be a model to the public? Especially in rural areas. Perhaps I should write about that next week.” Necla is supportive but thinks he should write for a bigger paper. “I don’t agree with you, my dear Necla. On the contrary. Sometimes I receive letters.” His sister interrupts him, and the subject changes.
Aydın gets another opportunity to discuss the same topic when his friend Suavi comes to visit. Aydın shows him a letter from a surrounding village, written by a “great admirer,” obviously a woman. The letter requests funding to help build a technical school for girls in a poor village. Just before listening to his friend’s opinion, Aydın remembers that “Nihal loves charity like this. Should we call her as well?” Nihal joins them as well. Suavi’s reaction to the letter is “I don’t know.” Nihal’s is straightforward: “We’ve been collecting donations for this for a long time now. But it never attracted your attention. So I don’t understand your sudden charity.”
“How’s that?” Aydın asks Necla. “Fine.” “It’s not too harsh?” “No.” “Nothing that might be misunderstood?” “No. You don’t say anything about religion itself. You talk about the practices of those who apply it.” “And I also say Islam is a religion of high culture. Of course. I don’t really care for these things. But you know it’s delicate. But the guy annoys me so much, I can’t stop myself writing. So he managed to become the subject of an article. With his shabbiness, slyness, vagueness.”
In a country with a 99 percent Muslim population, don’t the people deserve men of God who are cultivated, neat, whose very presence is reassuring? The weekly sermon prepared by our imams, from their reading, will be heard with pleasure and admiration and will elevate the people. Islam is a religion of civilization and high culture.
So what kind of an intellectual is Aydın? For him, thinking is a matter of recognition, but “only values which are already current, only accepted values, give criteria of recognition” (Deleuze 1983: 81). The new, on the other hand, always brings forth dispute. Intellectual thought always involves disagreement, which is, above all, a disagreement on consensus, on recognized values (Rancière 2010: 144). The true purpose of intellectual thought, in other words, is not playing a given game, indulging in its officially recognized transgressions, but challenging the game itself. Such thought necessitates a process of separation, of dis-identification, vis-à-vis a given framework of the sensible with a view to opening up a space for what can be said, seen, and thought otherwise (ibid.: 212).
A critique of Aydın’s position along similar lines is articulated later in the film by Necla, when, in an argument, she reveals to Aydın that “on a second reading” she found his articles “harmless.” Aydın’s critique is only mediocre. Necla continues: “This soppy romanticism. This naive, unconvincing self-belief. Takes no risks, for one thing. It looks like the writer adopts positive values accepted by all, just to endear himself.” The same goes for Aydın’s article on religion. “You found a victim and you’re making the most of it. Stop harassing the poor man.”
In a country polarized by Islamic governance, experimenting with varieties of Islamic neo-liberalism and neo-liberal Islamism, Hamdi is too easy a target for articulating a critique of religion. More importantly, Aydın is looking for religion in the wrong place. In today’s world, after all, capitalism has become a religion, and religion has become capitalism. Henceforth, we should look for religion not in theological categories but in capitalism. To discuss this, let us revisit the essential link between capitalism and religion.
Weber’s ( 2003) discussion of the ‘spirit of capitalism’ is well known in this context. Since capitalism is a world without value, an inherently nihilistic system, it is constantly in need of moral justification, which can only come from outside. This external source is the Protestant ethic, which originally provided capitalism with a religious basis, with a ‘spirit’, although, according to Weber, the pact between capitalism and Protestantism has weakened to the point that “victorious capitalism … needs its support no longer” (ibid.: 124). Secularization brings with it disenchantment. Contra Weber, however, theology persists as an active force in the modern economy, for capitalism and Christianity are structurally bound together. What links them is articulated in social theory as the notion of guilt or debt. Seen in this prism, not only has capitalism found support in religion, but it emanates from religion (Benjamin 1996). Capitalism is a cult religion that does not expiate but produces guilt (ibid.: 288–291). Indeed, it is through the mechanism of guilt (debt, credit) that value begets surplus-value, a process that resembles a god’s self-generation out of nothing (Hamacher 2002: 92). Thus, in Marx’s view ([1857–1858] 1993), the law of value functions as an abstract law that governs the relations of equivalence Marx concludes: “Money is therefore the god among commodities” (ibid.: : 221). The paradox here consists in the movement by which the abstract value becomes totally value-free: abstract capital seeks out additional accumulations of capital whenever, wherever, by whatever means. Ultimately, as a result, the concept of (exchange) value can say nothing about value. It is in this sense that the world of capitalism is essentially a world without value. However, this cynical approach must not be mistaken as the absence of a religio-moral dimension in capitalist sociality, for such cynicism is often coupled with the sacralization of capital (Deleuze and Guattari 1983: 225). Capitalism posits an infinite debt to capital; everything appears to emanate from and return to capital. Hence, most people today can imagine the end of the world but not that of capitalism (Žižek 2009: 78).
Spinoza ( 1993) emphasizes that money can appear as ‘cause’, that is, as God. Money provides a shortcut to everything, and therefore the multitude “can scarcely imagine any kind of pleasure unless it be accompanied with the idea of money as the cause” (ibid.: 192). Religion, Feuerbach (1989: 27) adds, takes over the best qualities of humans and allocates them to God, affirming in God what is negated in man. This results in the paradox of religious alienation: the more God is glorified or valued, the more human life is depreciated and devalued. In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Marx ( 2007: 119) repeats the same logic regarding capital as a source of economic alienation: the more wealth that workers produce in a capitalistic economy, the poorer they become. Just as religion captures what is profane and sacralizes it through glorification, capitalism captures the commons and commodifies them for display in the spectacle. Not surprisingly, the glorification of capital thus parallels the glorification of God. In both cases, “glorification is … what produces glory” (Agamben 2011: 216, 227). And in both cases, what is at stake is human life, which is, originally, “inoperative and without purpose” (ibid.: 245). What religion does is to capture this inoperativity and inscribe it in a religious sphere, to sacralize it, only to partially return it in the form of the ‘Sabbath’ when all ‘work’, all economy, ceases to exist and everything falls back upon inoperativity. What capitalism does is to capture the multitude’s inoperativity, its creative freedom, and inscribe it in a utilitarian sphere, only to partially return it as permitted freedom, as a ‘holiday’, which is the main promise of work in capitalism—a post-governmental promise in which work (hell) is replaced for a short time by play (paradise).
Not Resisting Evil
This is of course a clear reference to the Bible: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:38–39). If someone does you evil, you must not respond in kind but put it at a distance. Doing otherwise is participating in evil, which can only lead to its metastases.
I still feel … we’re fooling ourselves when we’re fighting evil … Instead of struggling against evil, why not do the exact opposite? Say you don’t want a painting to be stolen. It’s maybe better to hand it to the thief. Maybe it’s a better solution.
Thus, Aydın’s vanity is confronted with Necla’s Christian ethics. Taken to its logical limits, Necla’s implication is that ‘resist not evil’ would lead to a sociality grounded in forgiveness. Not responded to in kind, the evildoers would potentially be ashamed and feel remorse. Unsurprisingly, however, Aydın is not capable of grasping the theological detail: “What a ridiculous idea! Should we allow mass murders because some killers could regret it? Even soaps don’t produce such nonsense.” Certainly, Necla’s ethics are prone to problems. Why, after all, should one assume that in social situations characterized by conflict, one’s opponents/enemies will refrain from using force, from doing whatever they can to accomplish their goal? Such an assumption (already ridiculed by Nietzsche’s birds of prey and lambs analogy) is itself a moralistic position, for it essentially reduces power to something that can be separated from what it can do. In this perspective, Necla’s Christian ethics boil down to normative imagining, to idealism.
Nihal intervenes with an interesting remark: “To be honest … I don’t quite grasp it. Where does this need come from? Why do you feel like this?” Here Nihal points out the immoral core of Necla’s morality. There can be no inherently moral phenomenon, only a moral evaluation of certain phenomena as moral from a certain perspective. Morality is necessarily a perspective that coincides with the moralist’s conditions of life and his or her judgments concerning these conditions (Nietzsche [1883–1888] 1967: 148–149). The essence of Necla’s argument lies in its being a perspective. What drives her is an active force, a ‘need’, even though this force seems to be latent (see Nietzsche  1996: 67, 119).
Necla defends herself: “It’s not a need, just an idea.” At this moment, the discussion is interrupted, as Hamdi comes once more, this time together with İlyas so that he can apologize to Aydın properly. Aydın is irritated. They are served tea and cookies. Hamdi takes the initiative: “Come on now, son, kiss Mr Aydin’s hand.” But there is no response from the boy. “İlyas? Didn’t we say we’d go and do this without telling your dad? Don’t embarrass me in front of everyone. Come on, son. Kiss Mr Aydin’s hand.” “Fine, then,” Aydın responds as he reluctantly stretches out his hand. “İlyas, come on. Mr Aydın is waiting.” The boy faints. This fainting/resisting is allegorized in the next scene by the taming of a wild horse that has been found for Aydın’s hotel.
The following day, Necla and Nihal have a conversation. Necla is worried that her ex-husband Necdet has become an alcoholic. “But he always drank a lot, didn’t he?” Nihal asks. “He did indeed, but … he’s been drinking much more since we separated.” Then we realize why Necla “needs” her philosophy of not resisting evil: “Sometimes … I can’t help thinking we’re worse off after splitting up. Him over there in that state, me here miserable … If I’d overlooked all the evil stuff Necdet did to me, if I hadn’t resisted, if I hadn’t divorced him, say. If I could have made him face his own evil side. I don’t know. I wonder what would’ve happened if I had acted differently.” “You mean, if you hadn’t resisted all the bad things he did, he would’ve finally felt ashamed?” “Yes. Yes. Exactly. You put it well.” Nihal instead suggests that not resisting evil may only make the other person feel even more justified.
This is when Necla reaches her lowest point. First, she picks a fight with Nihal: “The real reason I’d apologize to Necdet is maybe to get away from all of you and all of this. It’s pretty clear now.” Then in another conversation she spitefully attacks Aydın’s mediocrity: “I can’t believe how I left a place like Istanbul and agreed to come and live with you.” Aydın can only say: “You’re bored because you sit around doing nothing. You’ve really let yourself go. You used to do translations. You stopped even that. Of course you’re bored.” “Maybe I don’t know what to do. I’ve no passion to give me direction. But then, what do you do?” After this scene, Necla leaves for Istanbul.
The following scenes depict how Nihal and Aydın’s relationship hits the bottom. Aydın accidentally learns that Nihal’s charity group is having a meeting. He insists on staying, as he is jealous of the close relation between Nihal and Levent, a member of the group. But Nihal asks him to leave. “Listen to me, Aydın, please. We’ve lived in peace for two years, each to his own affairs. What’s suddenly changed? … If we start fighting and quarreling again like we used to, then it’s clear I can’t stay here.” Aydın replies that he is leaving anyway, that he decided some time ago to move to Istanbul. He has but one question: “What have I done to you? Is it that you’re young, beautiful, and would like to live your life? I’m much older than you, and you hate me for that? Is that my guilt?” “I always felt I’m older than you anyway. But you’re an unbearable man. You are selfish, spiteful, cynical. That’s what you’re guilty of.” Finally, Nihal asks Aydın to let her alone in her charity activity “because this is my only consolation. I spent my entire youth fighting with you. Now, thanks to this work, I believe in myself again.”
Hidayet takes Aydın to the railway station. But lacking determination, Aydın cannot leave. Instead, he decides to visit Suavi.
Before leaving, Aydın makes “a small donation” to Nihal’s organization in a rather demonstrative way. Nihal decides to give this money to Hamdi’s family as a gift. Hamdi is surprised: “But this is a huge amount of money. How can I accept this? There’s enough to buy a house. What would people think?” “Mr. Hamdi. No one needs to know. This can stay between you and me.” Nihal’s intention is to realize a purely ethical exchange, without the intervention of a third party, of the social. But unexpectedly, İsmail comes home while they are talking. He is drunk. Hamdi explains to him: “Nihal was worried about İlyas. She came to wish him good health. That’s why she came.” But İsmail sees the money on the table: “What’s this?” She thought they might need it, Nihal explains. “What does Mr Aydın say about it?” asks İsmail. “He doesn’t know. He doesn’t need to know, either.” İsmail counts the money. “But all this money … isn’t it a bit too much?” Both nervous and embarrassed, Hamdi tells Nihal: “I apologise. He’s surprised, too. İsmail, why not go and wash your face or something?” “No need.”
Nihal is annoyed by İsmail’s sarcasm but keeps herself under control, saying nothing, trying to endure the spectacle. İsmail stands up. He throws the money into the fire. Nihal is stunned, unable to say anything, as if she has seen the devil. There is a barely noticeable, bitter smile on İsmail’s face. İlyas is peeping through the door. His eyes meet his father’s. Next, we see Nihal driving back, crying loudly. We had seen her alone and desperate in her room after her discussion with Aydın, but now, as the meaning she ascribes to her charity is violently questioned, she is devastated.
Let’s see … if the math is right. Now if this amount is … for little İlyas who risked his life to mend his father’s broken pride. And if this is … for the self-sacrificing brother Hamdi who had to go hand-kissing because he looks after five people. And if this is for the drunkard father İsmail who got beaten up in front of his son disgracing himself and his family … There’s still some left. If that is for our heroine Mrs Nihal who tries to ease her conscience by doling out charity to those less fortunate than her … then this money is just enough. You got the sums right. A truly kind thought, but … you forgot something, Mrs Nihal. The person in front of you is a filthy drunkard incapable of appreciating all your kindness.
But this fire scene, absolutely the most powerful one in the film, is skillfully left ambivalent so that it opens up to different lines of interpretation. The spectacle İsmail is staging immediately brings to mind the figure of the ‘abject hero’ (Bernstein 1992), a carnival character originating in Saturnalian dialogues in which the master and slave roles are reversed. The nature of the dialogues features a bitter, negative strand that has endured up to the present. Refusing to conform to the society that he or she despises, the abject hero remains a crucial figure in today’s culture. In this sense, İsmail has adopted the discourse of the slave in the carnival. For the same reason he seems to have jumped out from Dostoevsky novels: recall the father in Brothers Karamazov who characteristically debases himself in order to debase others around him or the character who burns money in Idiot. It is as if İsmail is saying, “I am cynical, but the society around me is more cynical. I am bad, but you are worse. I am a ‘filthy drunkard’, but you are merely easing your conscience.”
One can perhaps go further along another line of thought. The film indicates that Aydın, Necla, and Nihal’s world is, for all their references to “telling the truth,” “facing the truth,” and so on, a disenchanted, reified world in which the illusion of truth has disappeared. They are people who can do without heaven and hell (although they do not stop talking about religion, debt, and guilt). It is as if the ‘real world’ that religion contrasts to the existing world—the world of appearances—is replaced with a notion of reality constituted on the basis of representation and meaning. But just as religion once turned into a fiction, Aydın, Necla, and Nihal’s world, too, gradually reveals itself to be a simulacrum suffocating in its own accumulation. The problem with such a world is demonstrated in Nihal’s unsuccessful attempt at symbolic exchange, at giving a gift. İsmail’s act indicates that a symbolic resolution is no longer possible in a world in which everything has disappeared into the icy waters. It signifies the ‘accursed share’, the devil’s share, which cannot be included within—and thus challenges the reality principle of—the discontented trio’s world. İsmail’s world is one that cannot be found in theirs: it has no equivalent anywhere in it. This is the reason why İsmail is ruthlessly sarcastic about Nihal’s charity, which threatens to turn ethics into a matter of accountancy. Along the same lines, the purpose of burning the money is to short-circuit the principle of equivalence that regulates Aydın, Necla, and Nihal’s—and at this point we can add Hamdi’s—world, the illusion of which consists in denying its outside: symbolic exchange. As Baudrillard (2001) insists, a world in which symbolic exchange is not possible can only be destroyed symbolically. Concomitantly, all of Aydın’s, Necla’s, Nihal’s, and Hamdi’s efforts to make their world a meaningful place are annulled by İsmail’s single ‘nihilistic’ act: “Behind the exchange of value and, in a sense, serving as an invisible counterpart to it … behind the exchange of Something, we have, then, always, the exchange of the Nothing (ibid.: 7; my emphasis). The ‘nothing’, the void created by İsmail’s act, is effectively emancipation from existence as it is defined in the icy waters of the money economy. By the same token, the real catastrophe is not—as the horror on Nihal’s face would indicate—throwing money into the fire; rather, it is living in a world in which this void is foreclosed, a world dominated by ‘rational’ exchange alone.
In stark contrast to Necla’s attempt at not resisting evil, which is reducible to a need, İsmail is the only person in the film who truly can speak evil, which consists in his insight into symbolic exchange as a challenge to the consensus on economic exchange. This is precisely the antagonistic dimension in İsmail’s act that is impossible for Nihal and the others to grasp. Without İsmail’s hostile, evil intervention, we would be left at the mercy of the forces of the good (Aydın’s mediocrity, Necla’s Christianity, Nihal’s charity, Hamdi’s Islam). İsmail’s evil act, which is itself a spectacle, an illusion, to be sure, is ultimately what protects us from the good by pushing it toward excess. As Baudrillard (2005: 134) puts it: “On the symbolic plane there is only one way to pay back, and that is the counter-gift.” If it is impossible to give a counter-gift, then one can turn the refusal of the gift into a counter-gift. This is what İsmail does. From İlyas’s perspective, his father’s act, which he watches from behind the half-closed door, is a Manichaean gift, a symbol of a world in which everything is antagonistic.4
Seen in this light, Winter Sleep is a ‘fatal’ movie that plays at the collapse of the social. It masterfully demonstrates why “the real is what one must not consent to” (Baudrillard 1998: 69). Herein lies, too, the clue to understanding the smile on İsmail’s face when he throws the money into the fire. For İsmail, everything around him is a pile of pseudo-events, a farcical flow of empty, chronological time, like the ‘hell’ described by Benjamin (1999): bare repetition, the eternal recurrence of the same non-events that produce no difference. The only radical act in a world experienced like this is one that can work as an ‘emergency brake’ (ibid.: 252–254)—an event in which “time stands still and has come to a stop” (ibid.: 254). Nihal’s response reveals that she cannot grasp what is happening because she is preoccupied with causal, chronological relations between the past (debt) and the present (redeeming the family’s debt through charity). The time of İsmail’s act, however, is not chronological time. If history repeats itself as farce, if in pseudo-history the tragedy reappears as comedy, this is not necessarily a reason for melancholic detachment but rather an occasion for joyful separation. History takes this this course “so that humanity should part with its past cheerfully” (Marx  1975: 179; see also Agamben 1999: 154). As such, İsmail’s act is the ground zero of Winter Sleep.
In Suavi’s place, which Aydın decides to visit before leaving for Istanbul, there emerges another verbal fight between Aydın and Levent, whom Aydın is jealous of. Levent quotes from Shakespeare’s Richard III: “Conscience is but a word that cowards use, Devis’d at first to keep the strong in awe: Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law.” Here Aydın is exposed as a nihilist in the Nietzschean sense, as a weak personality hiding behind morality and conscience. He responds: “Our infallible fate is to be deceived in everything we attempt. I make brilliant plans each morning …and fool about all day.” This can be read as a reply to Levent, but it is tempting to interpret it as a confession as well.
The next morning, Aydın returns to the hotel. He sees Nihal but his pride prevents him from telling her what he thinks. Instead, he rehearses: “I didn’t go away. I couldn’t … Please, don’t ask me to go either … I know very well how terrible or impossible it would be to part from you. Just as I know that you do not love me anymore. I know we can’t go back to the old days. And there is no need to. Take me with you like a servant, like a slave. And let us continue our life, even if we do it your way. Forgive me.”
This is a finale that remains faithful to the ambivalent affective structure of the film: we cannot be certain, as Aydın’s facial expression indicates, whether his thoughts are really decisions or momentary affects that can move in different directions, whether they will actually be spoken to Nihal or remain as inner thoughts (see Ceylan in Aytaç et al. 2014). At any rate, the scene demarcates the point at which Aydın hits the bottom, which is the unavoidable destiny of all the main characters in the film.
Necla couples this critique with another, referring to Aydın’s article on religion: “I should ask what religion, faith, spirituality have to do with you. Have you ever set foot in a mosque? Have you ever prayed so that you can talk about it?” To this Aydın replies: “Do I have to go to a mosque to write about religion?” But this response does not stop Necla: “You keep saying the imam’s feet stink. What’s it to you? The man walked 10 km in this cold. And he had to enter the room with those feet.”
You know what your problem is? In order not to suffer, you prefer to fool yourself. Yes, that’s it. But one has to have the courage to face the truth. If you’re looking for something more real, you’ll have to be destructive when necessary, dear Aydın. But since you’re an actor, you forgot about being real, being yourself. You jump from one personality to another, just like a grasshopper.
There is a lot going on here. It is of course true that Aydın lacks the courage to face the truth, which he himself indirectly admits in the film’s final scene. However, two things are essential to note. First, insofar as ‘all the world’s a stage’, the first part of Necla’s accusation is misdirected, not only because there is a close relationship between theater and sociality. More importantly, intellectual production itself is a theatrical activity in the sense that it involves dramatizing (actualizing) abstract (virtual) ideas. Just as every time an actor stages a play differently, thinking involves the creation of difference through the repetition of ideas (see Deleuze 1994). Likewise, Winter Sleep—a theatrical film from beginning to end—effectively wears the mask of Chekhov (particularly his short stories “The Wife” and “The Excellent People”), repeating his themes but producing something different (especially by making use of ambivalence and suspense). Therefore, we can refute Necla’s point about Aydın being an actor—on the contrary, he is too mediocre to have a sustained fidelity to any mask, to any idea.
Second, and more problematic in a political context, Necla associates spirituality with monotheistic religions: setting foot in a mosque or a church becomes a prerequisite both for truth-telling and for speaking about religion. Consequently, Aydın’s question as to whether one has to go to a mosque to write about religion or speak about spirituality is pertinent. It is also a question that the film skillfully avoids despite its focus on religion. To answer it, revisiting Foucault’s (2001) Fearless Speech might be useful. Crucially, the spirituality at issue here is neither reducible to religion nor religious in its essence. It can be taken as a profane concept that refers to a set of practices that arise when a truth is obscure to the subject. In this sense, spirituality is what enables the subject to access truth and to criticize power. Grounded in truth-telling, it is what the ancient Greeks called parrhesia (ibid.: 11), epitomized by the famous image of the Cynic Diogenes, the dog-like truth-teller living in a barrel, insisting that the most important thing in life is freedom of speech. This freedom must be protected from the influence of wealth and power at any price: “For, if I should be bribed too, there would be none left to rail upon thee” (Shakespeare  1970: 665).
It is in this sense that Aydın is not in a suitable position to engage with truth-telling. But what does this have to do with Necla’s rhetorical question about whether Aydın has ever prayed? Interestingly, Foucault (2001: 116) mentions at a certain point that the Cynics had a “resemblance to the early Christians.” Christians took over from the Cynics the practice of preaching, a form of truth-telling that involves the notion that truth must be told to everyone (ibid.: 120). Most importantly, Cynic asceticism played a decisive role in early Christianity (ibid.: 132). Foucault’s strategy here is obvious: he is historicizing religion. Theology is a phase in history, not an absolute beginning. What is sacralized can then be profaned. If parrhesia has been captured by religion, it can also be reappropriated. With Foucault, therefore, we can imagine a profaned form of political spirituality that is not reducible to revealed religion. The political horizon depicted in Winter Sleep might seem to be silent in this regard, but it is not completely so. To discuss this, let us conclude by focusing on two protagonists in the film: Necla (the Christian) and İlyas (the messianic stand-in for hope).
Conclusion: ‘Globalatinization’ versus ‘Messianicity without Messianism’
Is Necla really a Christian? How can her Christianity be explained? Derrida’s (2002) concepts of ‘auto-immunity’ and ‘globalatinization’ can be useful in understanding this. Insofar as it is an experience of the sacred, of the holy, religion is about purification and immunization, about keeping the sacred “intact, safe, unscathed” (ibid.: 61). In modernity, there appears to be an antagonism between the ‘miracle’ (religious faith) and the ‘machine’ (capitalist technoscience). In order to protect itself, to immunize itself, religion seeks to reject capitalism and technology. The paradox, however, is that while reacting antagonistically to capitalist technoscience, religion, at the same time, reaffirmatively outbids itself. It appropriates capitalism and science while rejecting them, and thus faith and science, miracle and machine, “overlap, mingle, contaminate each another without ever merging” (ibid.: 63). Religion’s zeal for immunity leads to the loss of immunity. Like redundant ‘anti-bodies’ that turn against the organism in which they live, religion embodies an auto-immune pathology in relation to technoscience. The global ‘return’ of religion today, which also constitutes the social context of Winter Sleep, takes place against the background of this auto-immunity. The globalization of religion can be understood in terms of a “strange alliance of Christianity, as the experience of the death of God, and teletechnoscientific capitalism” (ibid.: 52). The two siblings Necla and Aydın constitute in the film the two sides of this ‘strange alliance’.
Derrida (2002) calls this auto-immune process ‘globalatinization’. Simultaneously hegemonic and in the process of exhausting itself, globalatinization is an “essentially Christian” (ibid.: 67) process whose dominant language is Latin in the sense that “whoever speaks religiously or about religion” today remains under its influence (ibid.: 66). Even Judaism and Islam, in a certain sense, speak Latin. But why is globalatinization on the verge of exhausting itself? The return of religion brings with it a ‘trivialization’ through which religion destroys its own conditions of existence (Vries 2005: 367, 370). But this banalization is not the end of religion as the ‘sacred’ is not the only source of religion. Derrida (2002) distinguishes between two sources of religion. On the one hand, as already mentioned, religion is grounded in an experience of the sacred, of the holy, which it seeks to immunize against all that which is perceived as evil (ibid.: 43). But this attempt, which is also a promise of salvation, is not the whole story. Religion has another, more significant source, which is grounded in the promise itself but cannot be reduced to the object of promise (salvation, redemption). Derrida calls this source “messianicity without messianism” (ibid.: 56), a messianicity that does not depend on any messianism, any Abrahamic religion, and does not follow any revelation. The difference between messianicity and messianism is tantamount to the difference between the virtuality of an event and the actual(ized) event, between the potentiality of revelation—“revealability”—and the actual revelation (ibid.: 59). As such, as a virtual or abstract faith, messianicity is not reducible to religious faith.
This is why Derrida (1994) can argue that within the communist and democratic traditions there is a messianism that is not reducible to religion through any deconstruction. What is irreducible in “messianism without religion” is an experience of the “emancipatory promise” (ibid.: 59), a promise whose effectivity keeps within itself an “eschatological relation to the to-come of an event and of a singularity, of an alterity that cannot be anticipated” (ibid.: 65). In contrast to religion, therefore, the content of this promise is not predetermined. The ‘alterity’ of that which returns in non-religious messianism cannot be foreseen. The absolute difference of the event forecloses the return of the absolute as a religious figure. What is ‘to come’, the future, remains unpredictable, new. The Last Judgment will not occur. Instead, the messianic return demands a “messianic opening to what is coming, that is, to the event that cannot be awaited as such, or recognized in advance” (ibid.). Non-religious messianism is a ‘call’, a ‘promise’ of the new, which always comes in the shape of emancipation, justice, and peace. It is a promise independent of the three monotheistic religions, even when they oppose one another, for it holds to the anti-nihilist belief that “faith without religion” is possible (Derrida 2004). Herein lies the significance of İlyas in Winter Sleep. Starting with the boy’s fall into icy waters, all the episodes in the film are connected to him in one way or another. Even the most violent act—İsmail burning the money—is staged for his gaze, as well as for all the pseudo-intellectuals debating religion. İlyas is the sole symbol of belief and hope in the film.
There are two significant consequences of the link between İlyas and messianicity in this sense. First, it becomes possible to distinguish between religion and faith: faith is not reducible to religion, just as religion does not necessarily rely on faith. Second, since messianic faith is a necessary but external condition for religion, it follows that that its religious appropriation (sacralization) is not an unavoidable process. Once again, profanation becomes possible. Another way of saying this is that religion cannot fully appropriate or exhaust the messianic. For all its repression and trivialization, the messianic is a virtual possibility that cannot be eradicated. It is a real possibility that persists and can always reappear. Its virtuality can be appropriated by religion, but it cannot exhaust itself in religion. The religious machine can only emerge from this groundless ground. Without the messianic, “there would be neither act of faith, nor promise, nor future” (Derrida 2002: 57). Indeed, insofar as religion is reduced to its ‘sacred’ components, it falls back upon the domain of common sense, becoming a ‘fetish’. The messianic, in turn, is a break with the fetish and signifies the opening up of the actual to the virtual.
What the religious machine, or organized religion, seeks is to codify this virtual source as a rule set. It attempts to formulate a foundationalist, supra-individual social codex that prescribes how people should organize their conduct with one another. Thus, the religious machine always implies that we can be moral only if, and when, we are religious. It invites us to presuppose that, expelled from the Garden of Eden, human beings cannot manage their lives unless they have rules to follow, with “morality as obedience to the Law and the recipe for a trouble-free life of conformity” (Bauman 1998: 13). But Winter Sleep demonstrates that even in hell there can be hope and—what is more interesting—another way out.
I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers and the editors of Religion and Society for their valuable comments.
As of 2016, Ceylan had received 86 awards in addition to 48 nominations. Winter Sleep was awarded the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or in 2014, and Ceylan received its Best Director Award in 2008. See Ceylan’s awards list on IMDb at http://http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0149196/awards?ref_=nm_awd.
The original language of the film is Turkish. In this article, the characters’ dialogue is drawn from the English subtitles.
See also “A Masterpiece from One of the Greatest Film Makers of Our Time,” a review by a Turkish commentator, Seyirci, on IMDb, 20 June 2014, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2758880/reviews-5.
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