Wednesday, 5 November 2014

The Republic of Imagination

Azar Nafisi’s latest is an ode to literary America, from Iran, with love
by Robert Fulford, National Post

In the fall of 1979, during the early days of Iran’s Islamic revolution, the 24-year-old Azar Nafisi was teaching her students at the University of Tehran the virtues of two American books, Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby. At the same moment, in the courtyard below, Islamists were shouting, “Death to America!” and the nearby U.S. embassy was under siege by screaming, murderously passionate anti-Americans.

“The new regime,” as she remembers it, “was leading a bloody crusade against Western imperialism, against the rights of women and minorities, against cultural and individual freedom.” That was the program of the Islamic Republic of Iran. And she, through literature, was doing her best to teach the reverse.

“Suddenly a new regime had established itself, taking hold of my country, my religion, my traditions, and claiming that the way I looked, the way I acted — what I believed in and desired as a human being, as a woman, a writer and teacher — were all alien.”

Under pressure at the university, she continued her classes at home, meeting discreetly with a few students who weren’t worried about official dogma. Eventually Nafisi left Iran and ended up in Washington as an American citizen and a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University. Her experience with private teaching in Tehran led eventually to Reading Lolita in Tehran, published a decade ago, in which she described what free literature meant to women living sharply circumscribed lives. She imagined that with luck her book would sell 9,000 copies; it sold 1.5 million, in 32 languages. It outraged Iranian critics and made her famous.

 Image courtesy of National Post.

Since then she’s discovered America through the artists whose work touched her — Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson, Miles Davis and Edward Hopper, the Marx Brothers and Woody Allen. James Baldwin, a great essayist and an interesting novelist, attracted her particular admiration: “One of his greatest artistic achievements was to seamlessly weave together the private and the public, the personal and the political and the social.” She has come to see literature as a “moral guardian” of a society, a nice thought though it may occasionally lead to over-simplified analysis.

These figures, people with free minds and free imaginations, became her heroes, “the founding parents of the America I felt I knew and belonged to,” Her most recent book, The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books, extends her literary and political pilgrimage. No doubt she would like readers everywhere to follow her ideas but she seems mainly concerned with helping Americans to recover their greatness. She wants to teach them that real democracy depends on a democratic imagination. She’s written a paean to a certain kind of America, the America she locates in three favourite novels, Huckleberry Finn, Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers.

Nafisi’s tone is urgent and rhetorical, marked by an anxious desire to deliver a message but softened by a sentimental account of friends and literary discoveries. Her strategy is autobiographical. She writes about her father reading her The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. She recalls the books that mattered to her as she became an adult and the books she shared with a long-time friend. She tells her readers about the thrill she experienced when her daughter discovered the special joys of Shakespeare’s vocabulary. Nafisi and her life as former Iranian who became an American remains at the core of her writing.

Her new book is an attempt to broaden the appreciation of the novel as a means of understanding life. She admires the way Sinclair Lewis in the

1920s satirized proud materialism and (Nafisi’s term) “the commodification of our souls” in the imaginary Midwestern town of Zenith. She believes America has come to believe in economic efficiency as its central goal, a utilitarian attitude that dismisses imagination and considers a passion for knowledge irrelevant. She thinks that Babbitt can help a reader to see this policy for the blunder it is. In The Heart is a Lonely Hunter she concentrates on the way it accommodates and celebrates characters who in many cases would be considered odd and dismissed as misfits.

Of course, Huck Finn himself might be categorized in just that way. As Nafisi says, “Huck was a mongrel, an outcast, uneducated and unmoored, and since his creation countless Americans have recast themselves in his image.” What she most admires about him, however, is his courageous ability to defy the slave-owning society of the South. He knows it’s wrong to act outside the law and help Jim to escape recapture, but he breaks the law anyway. His conscience demands that he obey the law but his heart tells him otherwise, and his heart wins. Mark Twain himself described that decision: “A sound heart & a deformed conscience come into collision & conscience suffers defeat.”

In a letter Mark Twain declared that “Delicacy — a sad, sad false delicacy, robs literature of the two best things among its belongings: Family-circle narratives & obscene stories.” Huck Finn expresses this in his rejection of Aunt Sally because she wants to “adopt me and civilize me, and I can’t stand it.” Rejecting a Sunday-school teacher’s version of civilization and politeness gives Huck the ability to act as an  independent spirit when a situation tests his moral sense.

Nafisi’s writing has a confessional charm and a naive but winning optimism. After decades as a professional reader and scholar she maintains her faith in the virtues of literature. This attitude to her Republic of Imagination will win the hearts of many readers and writers who believe that their best moments are spent, and their best selves appear, when they enter a place that requires no passport and demands only that you bring an open mind, a restless desire to know and an urge to escape the mundane.

Via National Post


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