Our Own Worst Oppressors

February 2012, TimeOut Istanbul (print edition only)

REVIEW: Prisoners of Ourselves: Totalitarianism in Everday Life, by Gündüz Vassaf

Sanity, heroism, menus, agreement, heaven, goals, and words.

These are among the everyday oppressors that Gündüz Vassaf identifies in Prisoners of Ourselves: Totalitarianism in Everday Life. The book, which was written in English in 1987 but only published in English for the first time in December, is a collection of ruminations on the ways that members of liberal, democratic societies exert totalitarian control over themselves and others.

As the above list indicates, Vassaf takes a broad approach to his subject, classifying as “totalitarian” anything that restricts freedom. In particular, Vassaf’s complaint is with trends that provoke people to act against their natures. In these nineteen essays, he argues that humans divorce themselves from life through everything from diurnalism to “death forgetting” — the collective suppression of humankind’s fear of dying.

In parts, Prisoners of Ourselves reads like the diary of a man rather displeased about everything. Vassaf warns, for example, that “our love expressions resemble the exchange system of a barter economy.” In a section about choices, readers are advised that “in choosing a side, any side, we become totalitarian.” Words, in his view, “are like the flags of imperialism planted on newly captured lands.” His essay on the mores of sexual orientation ends with the counsel that “liberation from sexual identity is not to have one.”

Vassaf is at his strongest when he grounds his arguments in historical examples or personal anecdotes. In a section where he undertakes a defense of traitors, Vassaf discusses the cases of Ezra Pound, Leon Trotsky, and Walter Rudolph Hess: three traitors whose treachery redeemed them in the eyes of some historians and later social commentators. While expounding on unconventional modes of human intelligence and ability, Vassaf relates a touching story about a blind student he taught during his days as professor at Boğaziçi University.

When he omits such specifics, however, Vassaf tends to drift into sweeping statements that themselves assert a totalitarian view of the social institution at hand. Thus, buttons have made us all amoral, all fixed goals are totalitarian, it is impossible to “take off one’s sexual uniform” without a sex change, and all choices are “detrimental to one’s health, happiness, and an understanding of life.” These observations are so obviously hyperbolic that they undermine rather than support Vassaf’s larger points.

Coming off as a caricaturish curmudgeon, of course, is a hazard of writing a collection of essays about the hidden oppressive nature of modern society. But Vassaf isn’t all grumpy, all the time; he occasionally proposes delightful, albeit difficult to realize, guidelines for liberating ourselves from our collective totalitarianism. “The more society allows for individual madness, the less there will be who will participate in collective madness,” goes one. And the poem at the end of the book, an adapted translation of Charles Baudelaire’s “Enivrez-Vous [Get Drunk]” contains its advice in its title.

Such a wide range of topics is discussed in Prisoners of Ourselves, furthermore, that every reader will find some nugget of kindred cantankerousness in Vassaf’s essays. Why has the idea of “workers of the world” been such an effective rallying concept despite the fact that workers from different countries rarely share practical interests? Why do parents act like they possess children? Vassaf points out that parents even exert a totalitarian control over children’s speech, encompassed in the common phrase, “Do not speak until spoken to.”

While Vassaf’s thoughts on these subjects are provocative, his rhetoric sometimes becomes the focus of passages where a historical analysis would be more interesting to most readers. Also lacking is any discussion of Vassaf’s efforts to abide by these attitudes in his own life. For all that he discusses the totalitarian nature of modern human love, parenting, goal-pursuing, and so on, readers will not learn from this book whether he himself has had successful relationships, raised children, or achieved professional or personal goals.

A former professor of psychiatry himself, however, some of Vassaf’s most acute observations concern that discipline. Psychiatrists make a living at upholding social and behavioral norms, Vassaf points out, such as military psychiatrists who are brought in to “treat” reluctant soldiers and instill in them an appetite for conflict. The practice has spawned an entire field, called “military psychology”, which studies the psychological methods that will make more effective soldiers of people. Why hasn’t there ever been, as Vassaf notes, a field of peace psychology?

At times, the heavy-handedness of Prisoners of Ourselves is likely to frustrate each person who reads it cover to cover. But it will also force readers to think about at least one subject in a new way. Vassaf’s essays are not the stuff of revelation, but they are certainly food for thought.

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