Leo Strauss Has Nothing on Azar Nafisi

I wasn’t surprised to learn that the author of this silly, nostril-wrinkled non-defense of Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran is also a contributor to The Nation. The left has long forfeited its belief that not only is the pen … Read More

By / November 30, 2006

I wasn’t surprised to learn that the author of this silly, nostril-wrinkled non-defense of Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran is also a contributor to The Nation. The left has long forfeited its belief that not only is the pen mightier than the sword, but it's worth wielding for its own sake.

Correction: If a text has the right politics, then literature is once again a force to be reckoned with. So Allen Ginsberg’s lousy and fifth-rate anti-Vietnam War poetry (compare to Robert Lowell if you get a chance) is labeled as brilliant and urgent at this, another imperiled moment in American culture. But Nafisi’s memoir of studying Western masterpieces in mullahified Iran is sneered at as “self-important” and saccharine. Here is Gideon Lewis-Kraus in Slate:

If Nafisi's book found such improbably joyful closure only at the expense of her own (presumably harrowing) emotional experience, we might merely shrug. What's much harder to defend is the implication that she's entitled to rejoice because of how much she's done for her students. The book's penultimate scene sees Nafisi at a coffee shop mulling over her decision to leave Iran when she is approached by Miss Ruhi, a former student. When we last encountered Miss Ruhi, she was a devout member of the revolutionary Muslim Students' Association and an icily disapproving member of Nafisi's course on Henry James at the University of Tehran. Now she tells Nafisi that she has an 11-month-old daughter, Fahimeh, whom she calls by a "secret name": Daisy, as in Miller, James' headstrong heroine (who, Miss Ruhi and Nafisi have both perhaps forgotten, is ultimately jilted before dying of malaria). "I want my daughter to be what I never was—like Daisy. You know, courageous." Nafisi, shored up by the knowledge that she has introduced some nominal courage into this young woman's sad life, can leave Tehran with an unburdened heart: Her life-affirming work there has drawn to a natural close.

Well, let us all agree that this is a great deal more influence than someone like Lewis-Kraus can ever claim to have on anyone himself if his purpose with this piece is to upend the conventional wisdom.

It’s obviously not the writing style (he cites a few terse, unadorned sentences to impugn Nafisi’s prose) or the personal reflections (Reading Lolita is a memoir, after all) that riles our author. Rather, it’s the fact that a yawningly dismissive treatment of her book has been done a disservice by exaggerated claims of one Hamid Dabashi.

A Columbia professor of no reputation or merit, Dabashi penned a famous indictment of Nafisi in the pages of Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram Weekly, calling her an evil pawn of the neoconservatives in Washington. (To read an earlier Shvitz post about this dust-up, click here.) Yes, that’s right. Her book should be read as a Defense Department memo, aimed at the Wolfowitz-Perle-Feith faction, for laying out the moral and psychological case for regime change in Iran. “Colonial agent” was Dabashi's preferred term for Nafisi's absorption and glorification of Western literature, which he sees as acts of “hegemony” against her native Persia — ayatollah Khomeini being the standard-bearer for the tradition that gave us Scheherazade and Omar Khayyam.

Lewis-Kraus, driven by what I suspect are his own ideological sympathies, wants to split a difference that doesn't need to be split: to show that Dabashi may be a crank but that Nafisi is a tricky customer, albeit an un-profound and insignificant one. Her stuff is mushy and middlebrow, so what does it matter if it winds up the American Enterprise Institute’s Book-of-the-Month selection?

Nicely confusing two cultural paradigms, Lewis-Kraus calls her a “literary carpetbagger” because, as she implies throughout her volume, she could have left Iran at any time and was thus immune to the prevailing captive mind syndrome she claims to diagnose. Not much improving on Dabashi's "hegemony," Lewis-Kraus uses the word “touristic” to describe Nafisi's experiences, which certainly put me in mind of the epithet used by a handful few neocons to disparage Susan Sontag’s trip to Bosnia in the mid-90’s. Sure, Sontag could have left that Holiday Inn in Sarajevo at any time, too, but how inauthentic does that make her commitment to protesting a horrific genocide that was taking place, at the close of the twentieth century, on European soil? More Lewis-Kraus:

Rather than reading Nafisi's well-intentioned book…as a mostly inoffensive and well-marketed literary trifle—he is, after all, a professor of literature—Dabashi insists on seeing it as political perfidy. He writes that her book "pushes back the clock half a century" in promoting "the cause of 'Western classics' at a time when decades of struggle by postcolonial, black and Third World feminists, scholars and activists has [sic] finally succeeded to introduce a modicum of attention to world literatures." This sort of claim makes clear what ultimately binds Dabashi and Nafisi to each other: their shared overemphasis on the politically salutary effects of reading novels and writing literary criticism. Dabashi's purposes are not served by calling the book bad because it is cliché, which would be right but pointless. He must call it bad because it is dangerous. In the end, Dabashi must conspire with Nafisi to make the book more important that it is: The besieged Nafisi gets to preserve her fantasy that removing her veil to read Austen in her home was not only therapeutically powerful but politically noble, and Dabashi gets to preserve his fantasy that criticizing Nafisi makes him a usefully engaged intellectual. But those whose fingers are on the triggers of those targeted nuclear warheads couldn't possibly care about what either of them has to say.

Got that? Orientalism’s prosecution and defense have merged into one banal, theoretical whole. And that last sentence is almost too cynical and pathetic for words. I await any future comment on the necessity of protest literature from this guy.

As it happens, there is a very powerful and moving scene at the end of Reading Lolita that deserves mention. Nafisi’s husband is consoling her about the prospect of expatriating to the U.S. and leaving her gifted students behind (a decision that was not undertaken as lightly as Lewis-Kraus would have us believe.) Dejected by how the reactionary religious authorities have affected her life and destroyed her career, Nafisi’s spouse replies that this may well be true, but what of the effect she had on them? Would she really leave no indelible mark on the culture, even by allowing her girls the chance to doff their veils and discuss great books in an estrogen-heavy kaffeeklatsch setting? Any foreign correspondent who’s been to Iran would affirm that people like Nafisi have done just that – the country is defined as much by blue jeans, lipstick and punk rock as by enriched uranium and the imminent arrival of the occulted 12th imam.

Lewis-Kraus should grow the fuck up and realize that poetry – and novels and essays and, yes, even bestselling memoirs – can make something happen. Actually, I needn't wait too long for his ode to the power of the written word: He scathingly compares Nafisi as the Bridget Jones to Czeslaw Milosz's Elizabeth Bennett. So then: Does his closing remark about fingers on nuclear triggers also apply to that Lithuanian titan of anti-totalitarianism? If so, I’d like to nominate Lewis-Kraus and Dabashi as chairs of the welcoming committee for Vaclav Havel, who'll be a visiting professor at Columbia this winter.

Nafisi’s was a memoir about reading the best any culture has to offer, and about reading it in samizdat, under the threat of intimidation, arrest and loss of social and professional privilege. That’s testament enough to the transformative — not to say, revolutionary — capacity of art. Reading Lolita elegantly underscored just how pea-brained some arbiters of taste and correct thinking are in one country. It’s a lesson that Lewis-Kraus’ criticism of it seems intent on repeating in this one.

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