“Perhaps to remain a poet in such circumstances is also to reach the heart of politics. The human feelings, human experiences, the human form and face, recover their proper place — the foreground.” Saul Bellow’s description of the function of art under the regimes of totalitarianism is a recurring motif in Azar Nafisi’s book, Reading Lolita in Tehran, an autobiographical/literary study of the power of literature in the Islamic Republic of Iran. A brilliant and dramatically moving exposition of the power of literature to transform souls and create spaces for the retention of community and identity in the midst of totalitarian oppression, Nafisi’s crisply written book has come under fire as an alleged instrument of neoconservative imperialism. An article by Hamid Dabashi from Columbia University has given rise to mainstream treatments of the controversy in the Chronicle of Higher Education and in major newspapers. In an odd and mostly contrived controversy that says less about contemporary global politics than it does about certain pockets of the contemporary academy, what is at risk of being lost is Nafisi’s powerful account of the nature of liberal education.
What is odd about the attention the attack has received is that, in his article, Dabashi offers no evidence whatsoever for the charge that Nafisi’s book has in fact been deployed as an instrument of American neo-con imperialism; nor, except for a lengthy analysis of the cover, which Nafisi herself did not select, does he deign to address any details from the book itself. He does accuse Nafisi of presenting English novels in a manner “aloof” from secondary sources, from theoretical interpretive matrices. As if to illustrate the way that, in some academic circles, a text to be interpreted is completely erased by the scholar’s obsession with the theoretical, Dabashi’s own essay is an unintentionally humorous exercise in not reading Reading Lolita in Tehran.
Dabashi gives ample evidence of being in the grips of a theory, perhaps multiple theories, particularly those of Freud (there are tiresome references to the Twin Towers as American phallic symbols), Edward Said, and of Negri and Hardt’s nostalgic Marxism in Empire (The latter book was subject to a devastating review by Alan Wolfe in The New Republic, who found it to be a “meandering, wordy, and incoherent” book that allowed for “no justifiable distinctions between good and evil acts” and construed notions of totalitarian and terrorist as mere constructs of capitalism.) At a time when even mainstream literary criticism is becoming increasingly suspicious of the heyday of theory, Dabashi’s entire approach has a very 1970s feel to it.
It is in part the book’s focus on Western literature (from Austen to Fitzgerald) that is the source of the accusation that Nafisi is suppressing Iran’s indigenous culture in favor of Western culture. But she does notice the way in which America had become mythologized in Iran, simultaneously as Satan and as Paradise Lost. Moreover, one of her great disappointments in coming to the West is not just our smug indifference to the great poets of American life, but also the abstract and reductionist way in which we construe other cultures. And she objects repeatedly to the Western reduction of Iran to fundamentalism and of the entire Middle East to an undifferentiated “Muslim world.” She also speaks of the way Persian culture has been repeatedly suppressed in Iran and promotes the reading of Ferdowsi’s Book of Kings, the great Persian epic that sought to keep alive the memory of a nearly destroyed culture.
Little noted in the mainstream reporting on Hadashi’s attack is his brusque dismissal of Nafisi’s so-called amateurish approach to literary texts with her female Iranian students. One of the assumptions of Nafisi’s book is that ordinary persons, without the assistance of theoretical architectonics, can truly name the evils of their regime, and can call terror, oppression, and totalitarianism by their true names. Of course, the book also makes a persuasive case for the way literary masterpieces can aid the ordinary individual in carving out spaces marginally free from the omnipresent totalitarian regime and can provide the basis for alternative forms of community. But literature, as Nafisi’s retelling of her interaction with her students dramatically demonstrates, can speak to us without the mediation of theoretical baggage.
Nafisi certainly has an amatuer’s passion for literature, in the etymological sense of the French term amateur, or lover. However scholarly and sophisticated their understanding of a book might become, great teachers never lose the amateur’s attraction to books. So Nafisi suggests that it is better to have the student confront the text without lengthy commentary and to allow the language, story, and characters to move the student. And indeed this had remarkable results in her informal class in Iran.
At one point in her book, she flatly rejects the thesis that the personal is political; they are “interdependent but not one and the same thing.” Political rights keep the political from “intruding on our individual lives.” If everything becomes political, as happens under totalitarianism, then politics as an identifiable branch of human life disappears. Still, the “realm of imagination” can bridge the two.
The book moves back and forth between depicting literature as a timeless, interior world of the imagination, a world of “pure fiction,” whose attraction is partly due to its uselessness, its inability to be put at the service of crude ideologies or instrumental reasons; and , as Nafisi describes and teaches it, as something that can indeed illumine the social and political conditions of human life. Lolita can be read as an extended meditation on the violent consequences of a certain kind of solipsism, an attempt “to confiscate another human being’s life and shape it according to one’s own distorted dreams and desires.” And Gatsby is not just about the destructiveness of the wanton rich, who break things and destroy lives and then pay others to clean up the mess; it is also about the way dreams from the past, now impossible to realize, can deprive individuals and communities of the ability to act with hope in the present.
If the need for great works of literature is mostly felt in extremis, in circumstances of severe depirvation and oppression, then what is the point of such literature in the West, particularly America, where we are free to read whatever we want — indeed, as Nafisi trenchantly observed in a lecture last week at Baylor University, where we are free to remain as ignorant as we want? Here she wisely turns to Saul Bellow and his sense that successful liberal democracies are vulnerable to cultural amnesia and to a loss of the properly human passions and inquiries. In Bellow’s brief novel, The Bellarosa Connection, the problem for liberal democracies is that of memory, which is too easily reduced to a sort of technique for the retention of mere information.
She worries about a politically correct culture of easily offended victims, acutely aware that one of the costs of the responsible use of speech is that it may well give offense. She is also skeptical about what multiculturalism has become in many universities, a celebration of difference for its own sake. There are two problems here: First, such celebration of difference deprives us of the basis for judgment of oppressive practices and for a robust defense of human rights. Second, it undercuts the possibility of empathy and understanding. Difference, Nafisi insists, is always apprehended against a background of some shared understanding, some sort of connection or link that bridges the gap between individuals and cultures.
In a perceptive essay on liberal education, she writes, “No amount of political correctness can make us empathize with a child who is starving in Darfur. Unless we evoke the ability to imagine, unless we can find the connection between that woman or that child and ourselves, we cannot empathize with either of them.” This is one of the ethical functions of literature and art, to allow us to inhabit the world of others and thus to expand our sense of the universe, to deepen our appreciation of the range and complexity of human character.
If there is a danger in Nafisi’s narrative of liberal education under an oppressive regime, it is that it at times borders on romantic escapism. But that has less to do with her conception of education than with a particular set of external circumstances. In fact, the book provides compelling examples of what is all too rare in contemporary commentary on education today — the transformative power of words when hungry young students encounter remarkable books. If beginners may be put off from literature by the interposition of theories between their souls and great poems and novels, they may still profit from books that whet the appetite for books. Nafisi’s book does that splendidly. Indeed, at its best, it offers an occasion for hungry readers — be they Iranian or American — to experience the transformative power of words for themselves.
— Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.