on reading a "treacherous, deceitful and pernicious book"

Ooopps, it was not a pastiche!

Well, am still recovering from the shock that I may have spent some summer time in the company of a “treacherous, deceitful, and pernicious book” [which] “ manufacture[s] a narrative that will enable and justify the global arrogance of [a] predatory empire and its pathetic claim to civilizational authority.”

Have I been manipulated by a horrendous sadistic neo-conservative careerist? Hamid Dabashi, a Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York City, certainly thinks so:

“ the author of RLT is a well-known, well-connected, and well-funded neocon, employed by the principle doctrinaire of neo-conservatism Paul Wolfowitz [...], endorsed by the most diabolical anti-Muslim neocon alive Bernard Lewis, and promoted by a scandalous PR firm like Benador Associates, and many other similar indications are all entirely tangential to the substance of my critique which as you read in my essay is the tenor and diction, message and narrative of RLT itself -namely the portrayal of a figment of imagination called "the West" as the arbiter of truth and salvation, and the dismissal of "non-Western" cultures as banal and diabolical” (1)

The above quote concerns the book “Reading Lolita in Tehran”, a semi-fictionalized memoir by Azar Nafisi (an Iranian professor of English literature), who left the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1997 to settle in the US. In her book she recounts her personal experience of the momentous events in Iran and of daily life under a fundamentalist Islamist regime. Her tale focuses on a group of female students who come together in a sort of clandestine weekly book-club to discuss novels by writers such as Nabokov, Henry James and Jane Austen.

Nafisi then contrasts the complex moral climate of novels (full of ambiguities, giving a voice to everyone, focusing on individual happiness and unhappiness, putting empathy first) with the cruel oppression of individual freedoms (in particular those of women) by a totalitarian society that imposes the commandments of a single religious morality on all.

Frankly, upon first reading Dabashi’s review I thought it was a pastiche on the typical jargon of post-modern deconstruction of the dominant imperial discourse. The review definitely excels in drowning any possibly valid points in preposterous venom.

But still, in the light of the catastrophic consequences of the politics of the ill-famed American neo-conservatives (the war in Iraq…), further investigation of the charges against RLT is warranted. Also, I can't wait to unleash on my unsuspecting blog-readership my very first public attempt at deconstruction! (2)

Deconstructing “Reading Lolita in Tehran”

There’s no denying that in RLT the complexity and freedom of mostly Western works of fiction are opposed to only Islamist totalitarianism. And there’s no denying either that Nafisi is steeped in American culture and that she displays woefully little critical attitude vàv American power politics.

But the book doesn’t depreciate Persian culture, quite the contrary as I recall (I was moved by its glowing paragraphs on Persian poetry). And Nafisi does start her tribute to the imagination with a reference to “ Scheherazade [who] breaks the cycle of violence by choosing to embrace different terms of engagement. She fashions her universe not through physical force, as does the king, but through imagination and reflection.”

However, the question remains – does Nafisi act as a “native informer” on behalf of the US by contrasting the liberating joys of Western literature with the sorrows of an Islamic Republic? Is Nafisi some sort of "colonial agent" who wrote her memoir to promote American-style democracy and to justify an Iranian regime-change brought about by US military means?

Ah yes, definitely, she does promote democracy! ! Let’s bring to the witness-stand following incriminating paragraph from her book:

“A good novel is one that shows the complexity of individuals, and creates enough space for all these characters to have a voice; in this way a novel is called democratic – not that it advocates democracy but that by nature it is so. Empathy lies at the heart of Gatsby, like so many other great novels – the biggest sin is to be blind to others’ problems and pains. […] A great novel heightens your senses and sensitivity to the complexities of life and of individuals, and prevents you from the self-righteousness that sees morality in fixed formulas about good and evil. “

Hum, well, surely US warships will not be deployed in the Persian Gulf to defend the honour of “the good novel”, “empathy” and “the complexities of life” ? And, really , these days, how many of the western power-brokers in command of the economic and military apparatus give a damn about the “civilizational authority” of Henry James...?

Ok, but still, but still – let’s not let Nafisi that easily off the hook. Does her book show the full complexity of individuals she advocates? Does she create enough space for all these characters to have a voice?

No, indeed, I must admit, she does not always.

Actually, she’s not a consummate novelist. In this semi-fictionalized memoir she does not always manage to give true depth to all of her characters. Some of them are clearly fabricated to represent different points of view in a rather artificial (& thus superficial) way. She is for example rather clumsy at representing different viewpoints regarding the headscarf. And she doesn't brim with empathy to render the possible inner motivations of for example members of revolutionary Islamic groups. (3)

But frankly, this book does not need any cunning deconstruction, because what you see is what you get: you see a (self-avowedly Americanized) Iranian Professor of English literature, who is not a novelist, who's more inclined to reading & teaching than to political analysis, who eventually flees to the US and who then writes a memoir centered around her genuine love of English novels and of teaching. And who in the process tries to give meaning to this love of novels against the background of the oppression of individual liberties by the Islamic Republic.

So of course you’ll get then a relatively biased work. And of course you’ll get a memoir that itself is not always fully up to the literary standards of complexity and nuanced polyphony which it celebrates in the great novels. But you will get some great literary criticism!

Deconstructing my own summer-reading experience of “Reading Lolita in Tehran”

While recognizing its flaws, I still must say I have loved reading this book. And, obviously, not as a manifestation of American "civilizational superiority". But nor, to be honest, as the subtlest of novels. Nor as the most balanced of documentaries about life in Iran. Though it is an interesting, and at times moving, account of life in an Islamic republic, as described by an intelligent and sensitive woman.

But most of all, I must confess, I loved it for a host of subjective and aesthetic-subversive reasons. The kind of reasons often “condescendingly called ‘bourgeois’ and ‘decadent’”.

So I’ll duly deconstruct the full suspicious set of my motivations:

I) firstly I loved RLT because of its thoughtful, old-fashioned analyses of a handful of novels (4)

RLT has for instance offered me insights into the ambiguities of Nabokov’s Lolita which have at last helped me to come to terms with my own profound ambivalence vàv this book. With great nuance Nafisi shows how the book Lolita is a study in cruelty and blindness to others, which are the crimes committed by Humbert, Lolita's disgusting & yet sophisticated protagonist. I came to understand how Nabokov's Lolita potentially exposes that same selfish & cruel arrogance in some of its readers who might revel in Humbert's sophistication, with all his witty depreciation of a certain sort of common way of life, and take it as a justification of his hideous behavior. (5)

Also to mention in literary analysis- department: thanks to RLT’s discussion of Henry James's novels, I have now finally mustered enough patience to actually read a Henry James novel, to keep up with all its intricacies and subtleties, and with all of its affectations, right through to page 425! ( and even enjoying it!) (6)

II) Secondly, and perhaps mostly, I loved reading RLT because, admittedly, it catered to my naïveté : the sentimental naiveté of the non-professional, non-academic, non-post-modern art-lover ( a naiveté shared perhaps with those numerous other readers?)

It is the naiveté of one who needs the beauties & complexities & harmonies of art to make up for the prevailing shallowness & dissonance & ugliness . The naiveté of one who has grown up in a milieu where novel-reading was considered as a sheer waste of time, and of one now working in a milieu where art is simply dismissed as irrelevant. For such a naïve art lover , this book, RLT, with its unashamed celebration of the useless novel, does come as a most welcome vindication of all that one cherishes.

And if Nafisi pitches in her book the consolation of novels against the “texture of life in a totalitarian society, where you are completely alone in an illusory world full of false promises”, then I confess that I transplanted that consolation to my own circumstances, living in a highly materialist Western society, in an “illusory world full of [materialist] false promises” .

So, what I personally retain from RLT is its ardent plea for an immersion in the slow, attentive world of great novels, its acknowledgment of the desire for beauty and of the need for an “ affirmation of life against the transience of life, an essential defiance, [..]” .
What I retain is its portrayal of reading as “ an act of insubordination against the betrayals, horrors and infidelities of life. The perfection of beauty of form rebels against the ugliness and shabbiness of the subject matter”.

Thus I did not even primarily take this book as a grand showdown between liberating Western literature and oppressive Islamist fundamentalism. And if some see RLT as "a literary raft on Iran's fundamentalist sea" (Margaret Atwood), then I personally cherished this book, including its flaws, as a small token of the immaterial, useless things I value , a token not yet swallowed by the sea of Western materialism.

III) And then, lastly, I loved reading RLT because of these two paragraphs when she discusses Henry James (and for the quoting of which this entire laborious post may merely have been an excuse) :

  • One paragraph, about how personal empathy trumps more traditional concepts such as heroism:

    “Thus, Dr Sloper commits the most unforgivable crime in fiction – blindness. Pity is the password [..] This respect for others, empathy, lies at the heart of the novel. […] This, I believe, is how the villain in modern fiction is born: a creature without compassion, without empathy. The personalized version of good and evil usurps and individualizes the more archetypal concepts, such as courage or heroism, that shaped the epic or romance”

  • And another paragraph, which gives the notion of “ integrity” its full due , recognizing the value of this sense of personal integrity, even if you, in the end, have nothing to show for it to a disparaging world: no material rewards, nor even a triumphant happiness.

    A hero becomes one who safeguards his or her individual integrity at almost any cost. […] so many of [James’s] protagonists are unhappy in the end, and yet he gives them an aura of victory. It is because these characters depend to such a high degree on their own sense of integrity that for them, victory has nothing to do with happiness. It has more to do with a settling within oneself, a movement inward that makes them whole. Their reward is not happiness […] What James’s characters gain is self-respect.”

So there, the full extent of my sentimentalist, individualist and utterly naïve engagement with art has now been woefully exposed…

notes under deconstruction

(1) I confess to selective quoting. I chose to relegate the following quote to these obscure notes so as not to completely de-credibilize Mr. Dabashi. ---- “I have said before and I have argued that here is an organic link between what Lynndie England did in Abu Ghraib and what Azar Nafisi did in RLT -and what holds these two underlings in the service of George W. Bush's war on terror together is no over-riding ideology, but a mere Kafkaesque careerism” --- The "organic link" Mr Dabashi posits there is pre-posterous and banalizes the horrors of torture and humiliation at Abu Ghraib. One would almost suspect Mr D to be a neo-con agent bent on undermining all authority of anti-american discourse through his ridiculizing inflation.

(2) "Can we please deconstruct deconstructionism as a male, Western invention and be done with it?" if I had found this post earlier , I could have skipped the deconstructing and instead have spent the sunday-afternoon reading in the park ....
(3) It was breathtaking to see how the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, in his novel “Snow”, was able to evoke all those different strands & perspectives in a society grappling with local or traditional customs versus western ones, in a society boiling with a variety of political sentiments ranging from political islam, over traditional-nationalist, over leftist-communist to westernized-bourgeois.
(an aside : not that it helps, you know, helplessly understanding all points of view, sometimes it merely exposes the intense tragedy of the condition of human plurality)
(4) it took me quite some time to find a blog focusing on the quality of literary criticism in RLT

(5) RLT has thrown light for me on one of those never fully clarified scenes of my own teenage years: the encounter with a stylish 35 year old man, well read and well travelled, dazzling me with his cultivation and paying me lavish attention while professing his love both of the book Lolita and of teenage girls. A man using the book Lolita as a tool for the seduction of inexperienced, impressionable teenagers. At that time, luckily, my natural reserve and a vague sort of alarm have kept me out of harm’s way, but only now have I understood how intellectual & artistic sophistication can go hand in hand with cruelty and abusive, selfish lust.

(6) I am so grateful to RLT for drawing my attention to the pathetic but intensely moving human type of the "perfectly equipped failure", as introduced by Henry James in "The Ambassadors"


Robin Bates said...

I came across your blog when you responded to mine (betterlivingthroughbeowulf.com) and am very glad that I did. This is a wonderfully thoughtful response to Nafisi. If there is one thing we have learned from the past eight years, it is that angry ideological responses--whether coming from the Bush administration or from leftist Columbia professors--stifle thought and undermine constructive attempts to build a better society. One thing that struck me about Nafisi's book is how she criticized herself and her fellow activists for their ideological blindnesses during the Iranian revolution--a number who fought against the shah were then executed by the mullahs. She shows how literature can function as a thoughtful check against such thoughtless extremism.
You are right, she's not a great writer. (The book repeats itself a number of times.) But the stories she tells are gripping, and she gets us to think about these books, and the urgency of literature, in a new way. If neo-cons have tried to co-opt her for their purposes (she seems to provide them with a twofer since she can also be used in the Bennett Western Civilization culture wars), that is their doing My own politics are liberal and I came out of her book inspired--not to go bomb Iran but to keep an eye out for issues of social justice in my reading. Whoever would have thought that Jane Austen, seen as somewhat conservative in our own culture, could become a liberation manifesto for young Iranian women?
Incidentally, I think the the Columbia professor is writing more out of professional jealousy than anything else. His own books haven't gotten the widespread attention that Reading Lolita in Tehran has. I come from academe and have seen people act this way.

ffflaneur said...

thank you for your comment, Robin. I agree with you that, though "neo-cons have tried to co-opt her for their purposes", the book itself does not inspire one to bomb Iran, but rather to "get us to think about these books, and the urgency of books in a new way".

You wrote in one of your posts:
"In times of upheaval, look to literature for guidance, which acknowledges humans in their full complexity and refuses to reduce them to simple political prescription"
RLT celebrates literature exactly for that reason and so how could it then be about pushing any "simple political prescription" ...?

I for one was inspired by RLT, not quite to bomb Iran, but to read (at last) Henry James, and also to get myself a copy of Marjane's Satrapi Persepolis (also about life in Iran).

Ah yes, Jane Austen, amazing Jane Austen indeed. Fay Weldon did a wonderful job (in her "on first reading Jane Austen") to show how, well, subversively humane JA could be.

Roxana said...

the funny thing is that i was in france (this explains my long silence here, dear fff, on a trip i can spare the time to read your delicious ponderous fivolities, but it is impossible to write a meaningful answer - and i will let you imagine the feeling of satisfaction i had reading your Frankfurt musings while i was enjoying the southern splendour of Arles :-P) when i followed the link to Graham's analyse of Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis - and i had just discovered the book, offered by a friend with a must-read recommandation - what a coincidence, no? :-) couldn't believe my eyes...

and now another must-read on my list, RLT!

(confession: i have always hated deconstructivism :-)

question-note: do you really think that anybody who is an ardent follower of your blog could ever find a post here 'too'- whatever that may be? :-) they are lovely, though, those small checkboxes! the only word to which i could attach a 'too' here is 'seldom', as in: posting too seldom, of course :-)

ffflaneur said...

oh Roxana - that got me into a fou rire !
Arles versus Frankfurt - Hum. Well. What can I say. :-)

Yes, those little checkboxes are lovely aren't they? couldn't resist (it's also easier to play around with checkbox-gadgets than to compose a post!)---

Have just now finished Persepolis, and am already missing it... such an enchanting mix of wit and drama ... such an engagingly stubborn heroine!