November 14th, 2005

Literary leftists–Part I: “Reading Lolita in Tehran” (be careful what you wish for)

Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran has scored a surprising amount of popular success, currently ranked around #300 at Amazon, and amassing close to 300 comments there as well. For a fairly literary and even somewhat didactic work subtitled “A memoir in books,” that’s pretty good.

I think part of its success (aside from its great title) is that it’s the type of book that especially appeals to women’s book groups—in fact, that’s how I came to read it. Most of the members of my book group talked about the book’s main theme: the shocking and depressing ways in which Iranian women’s lives have been stunted and twisted by the authoritarian and misogynistic theocracy in charge in Iran, and how Nafisi and her students somehow managed to feed their spirits by the clandestine study of some of the classics of Western literature.

Apparently, literature can help keep people who live under a totalitarian system sane—the Soviet dissidents also provided evidence of that. But, although of interest, that was not the theme I kept noticing and marveling at when I read the book; no, a very different aspect of Reading Lolita in Tehran kept grabbing my attention: the tendency of literary and intellectual youths in free societies to gravitate towards leftist causes that would end up curtailing that very freedom.

Author Nafisi is currently a literature professor at Johns Hopkins. The biographical blurb on the flyleaf of her book states that she had formerly been an English professor at the University of Tehran but was expelled for refusing to wear the veil, and that she later emigrated to the United States in 1997.

But Nafisi’s story, and her relationship to the revolution that devastated her country, is far more complex and ironic than that. The year 1997 was not her first emigration from Iran; she had left at the age of thirteen and been educated in England, Switzerland, and the US, only returning during the pivotal and fateful year 1979 to her beloved and much-longed-for homeland.

And what a homecoming it was! She writes:

The dream had finally come true. I was home, but the mood in the airport was not welcoming. It was somber and slightly menacing, like the unsmiling portraits of Ayatollah Khomeini and his anointed successor, Ayatollah Montazeri, that covered the walls. It seemed as if a bad witch with her broomstick had flown over the building and in one sweep had taken away the restaurants, the children and the women in colorful clothes that I remembered. This feeling was confirmed when I noticed the cagey anxiety in the eyes of my mother and friends, who had come to the airport to welcome us home.

Nafisi learned through bitter experience that you can’t go home again, although you can try.

The terrible irony of her story arises because Nafisi herself was part of the revolution that ended up destroying her country. Her tale resembles that of so many youthful visionaries, dabbling in politics like a bunch of naive Mickey Mouses (Mice?) in Disney’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” not realizing until too late the horrors their machinations will conjure into existence.

Nafisi married early, at eighteen, and attended college at the University of Oklahoma during the 1970s. Her plunge into political activism was as casual (and as literary) as it was leftist:

I joined the Iranian student movement reluctantly. My father’s imprisonment and my family’s vague nationalist sympathies had sensitized me towards politics, but I was more of a rebel than a political activist–though in those days there was not much difference between them. One attraction was the fact that the men in the movement didn’t try to assault or seduce me. Instead, they held study groups in which we read and discussed Engels’s Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State and Marx’s The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. In the seventies, the mood—not just among Iranians, but among American and European students—was revolutionary. There was the Cuban example, and China of course. The revolutionary cant and romantic atmosphere were infectious, and the Iranian students were at the forefront of the struggle.

So, revolution was a mood, an essence, something infectious in the air—rather like bacilli, as it turns out. Nafisi describes the group as markedly Marxist in philosophy and in style, sporting “Che Guevara sports jackets and boots…and Mao jackets and khakis.”

For Nafisi herself, romanticism and literature seem to have been the primary motives, passed somehow through the alchemy of her homesickness and transmuted into political activism:

[I] insisted on wearing long dresses outside the meetings…I never gave up the habit of reading and loving “counterrevolutionary” writers—T. S. Eliot, Austen, Plath, Nabokov, Fitzgerald—but I spoke passionately at the rallies; inspired by phrases I had read in novels and poems, I would weave words together into sounds of revolution. My oppressive yearning for home was shaped into excited speeches against the tyrants back home and their American backers.

Once in Tehran, Nafisi began to realize that the unsettling airport scene had been only the tip of the iceberg. She soon came to bitterly regret the mindless revolutionary zeal of her youth, and to realize that her revolutionary dream had turned into a nightmare, as they so often do:

When in the States we had shouted Death to this or that, those deaths seemed to be more symbolic, more abstract, as if we were encouraged by the impossibility of our slogans to insist upon them even more. But in Tehran in 1979, these slogans were turning into reality with macabre precision. I felt helpless: all the dreams and slogans were coming true, and there was no escaping them.

Although the revolutionaries back in Oklahoma and elsewhere had been decidedly leftist, the revolution they helped birth was a restrictive theocracy. One of the most interesting portions of the book describes how those leftists, at least in the early stages, managed to rationalize and excuse such clear signs that things had gone sharply awry as the imposition of the veil and the subjugation of women.

Nafisi was not one of those excusers, however; she describes her horror at the relentless approach of the suffocating clasp of the mullahs, a chill embrace undreamt of in her leftist days in Oklahoma.

And it got worse, much worse; there are many passages in the book that reminded me uncannily of what it must have been like for French revolutionaries to have watched the unfolding of the Reign of Terror (those who survived, that is), not to mention Stalin’s ex-comrades viewing the purges of their ranks:

In later months and years, every once in a while Bijan [Nafisi's husband] and I would be shocked to see the show trials of our old comrades in the U.S. on television. They eagerly denounced their past actions, their old comrades, their old selves, and confessed that they were indeed the enemies of Islam. We would watch these scenes in silence…I turned and asked Bijan, Did you ever dream that this could happen to us? He said, No, I didn’t, but I should have.

No, I didn’t, but I should have.” What quiet words of chilling despair! And indeed, one wonders how it was that smart people could have been so dumb; by the mid-to late-1970′s, when Nafisi and her friends were supporting a leftist revolution in Iran, surely the jury was no longer out on the fact that this was a road that would lead to the revolution swallowing its own as well as many others. But we see such a phenomenon again and again, as history repeats itself in its winding, twisting path.

In Nafisi’s case, she seems to have been mainly a romantic, interested in literature almost to the exclusion of other topics—such as history, apparently. Unfortunately for her, she had to learn the lessons of history the hard way, from personal experience. And so, too, did her revolutionary Iranian comrades-in-arms, unfortunately for them—and for us, and for the world as well. They could never have guessed at the trajectory their lives would follow from those long-ago days of sartorial playing at being revolutionaries, sporting Che and Mao jackets, to their final moments in the executioner’s chamber.

And, if you can believe this interview, the Iranian students who took the Americans hostage in the last year of Jimmy Carter’s administration were hardly more serious or more focused than Nafisi herself. Read it and weep.

Nafisi’s story underscores the fact that there does seem to be something in the literary mind that is especially susceptible to romantic ideals of revolution, that doesn’t accept that institutions of government will always be flawed, that seeks a sort of misty perfection, and that believes in the power of youth to proclaim those ideals merely by taking to the streets and wishing it very, very hard.

[ADDENDUM: I'm well aware that all major political change is susceptible to being overtaken by unplanned and unwanted forces. That included our American Revolution, for example, and that's why the drafting and adoption of our Constitution was so vitally important. That's also why, as a neocon who had advocated regime change in Iraq, I waited with trepidation to see what the results of the Iraqi elections and constitution drafts would be.

So far, I am cautiously optimistic about the future of that country, as long as forces in the West continue to protect Iraq in its process of establishing some sort of true representative government, with checks and balances and guarantees of liberty and human rights that are unusual for that part of the world. Those things are our only hope against tyrannnies on both left and right.

But as Nafisi describes them, the leftists who wanted so much to overthrow the Shah did not even seem to care about those petty little details when thinking about what would take his place. They broke quite a few eggs, but instead of an omelet they got Humpty Dumpty. Are there any horses and men who can ever put him back together again?]

17 Responses to “Literary leftists–Part I: “Reading Lolita in Tehran” (be careful what you wish for)”

  1. Lichanos Says:

    It seems to me that you are a victim of the same literary tunnel vision for which you reproach the author. You take HER account as emblematic of the contradictions and ironies of the Iranian debacle. You might see her as typical of the western-educated, secular, middle-class elite, liberals of Iran, but they were only one part of the revolution. If THEY had prevailed, things probably would have been a lot better, their starry-eyed leftism, notwithstanding!

    Yes, they should have known better, but what they should have better known is not the tired cliches you trot out about revolutions devouring their children (yes, they’re true, as are all cliches…) but their own country. They totally failed to anticipate things like the Revolutionary Guard, thousands of young people joyfully giving their lives in a WWI-style fight with Iraq, stamping out ‘western decadence’, beating up dissenters, etc. They we’re naive. Lots of leftists are. Lots of republicans are (they just pretend to be hard-nosed.) Lots of people are.

    You’re so busy grinding your axe about the evils of the Left that you can’t even see what’s in front of you. With your point of view, you can blame the terror of Pinotchet on Allende, Argentina’s dirty war murders on liberals, Hitler on the Weimar anarchists, and so on. It’s never the fault of the reactionary right-wingers who often make the same mistakes as leftists. (Remember, the ones who said it doesn’t matter if Hitler is elected, we can control him?)

    The point is to defend liberal political values, yes, LIBERAL, as in democratic, representative, checks-and-balance – all that good, Englightenment, secular, Bill or Rights stuff. Your ranting about the imagined ‘bacillus’ of the left doesn’t help matters.

  2. troutsky Says:

    My eyes were opened on 9/11.I once was lost, but now Im found,Was blind, but now, I see.All this amazing analysis of “leftist” literature and yet I almost get the feeling there was a pre-established, ingrained bias existing at the time of the reading.As though the readers had somehow been socialized into rejecting all but the status quo, although it is hard to imagine who would profit from that? No, you are right ,ideals are for fools, could you pass me somemore of that koolaid?

  3. Megan Says:

    Incredible. My formal education never included any historical context for what happened, or why it happened, in the 60s/70s. We learned a lot about WWII but little about the American Revolution, Civil War, or Vietnam. It wasn’t until after 9/11 that my eyes were opened to the evil that still exists in this world via those who admire Hitler/Stalin/et al.

    I am so glad to have found this website!

  4. Anonymous Says:

    I really enjoyed the book.

    Of course, I took the ‘political’
    comments with a HUGE grain
    of salt.

    Her literary criticism was, of
    course, first rate. Especially
    impressive was her exceptionally
    well reasoned analysis of “Pride
    and Prejudice”.

  5. Kierkegaard Says:

    A thoughtful and elegantly written piece. Thanks for it.

    It’s worth pointing out that the works of Marx and Engels were both available in post-revolutionary Tehran–until the mullahs belatedly discovered that both were Jews…

  6. Promethea Says:

    Hey, 12:06 Ymarsakar . . .

    You said it perfectly. That’s what I meant.

    Teach some actual useful knowledge about the U.S. government and the market economy. That way the American people (and others…maybe you’re an Australian on lunch break) will understand how divided government, representative government, and free exchange of goods without price controls are actually better systems than ones led by “romantic,” “heroic,” “eloquent” monsters like Castro, Stalin, and their ilk.

  7. Ymarsakar Says:

    In response to Neo’s post,

    So, revolution was a mood, an essence, something infectious in the air–rather like bacilli, as it turns out. Nafisi describes the group as markedly Marxist in philosophy and in style, sporting “Che Guevara sports jackets and boots…and Mao jackets and khakis.”

    If those youths had understood, translated from Japanese, as the “power gap” they wouldn’t have been so stupid as to expect the world to change according to their rather weak, immature, and spotty will.

    The world changes only because those with both the power, resources, and willpower contributes to a change.

    Buying into empty slogans of “revolution”, as young people tend to do, are pretty much a way of recruiting cannon fodder for someone else’s war. Whether this war is idealistic in orientation or an actual war like the Civil War or WWI.

    At least in the Civil War, the recruiters are fighting beside you and taking some of the same risks. In a “revolution” all the consequences of the cannon fodder’s actions settle upon the victims in other countries.

    Only rarely, do the risks affect the people actually composing most of the enlisted ranks.

    That allows a high critical mass, given the casualty figure among newly recruited cannon fodder is not very high. They may be reused and reprocessed, up until they are in their mid 40s, as we keep seeing in this country from the Vietnam days.

    The Kurds, the Shia, the Ukrainians, the Somalis, the Sudanese, however, can’t be “reused” and “reprocessed”. They just get dead.

    She soon came to bitterly regret the mindless revolutionary zeal of her youth, and to realize that her revolutionary dream had turned into a nightmare, as they so often do:

    What does anyone expect, when they pit the few against the many, the powerless against the powerful, the weak against the strong? A miracle perhaps? Do people really believe they are wise enough to replace the United States as the world only’s hyperpower, in charge of naval trade security, national sovereignty, and world wide economic developments? Perhaps they should have devoted most of their reading not to T.S. Eliot, but to Xenophon, Thucydides, and the other Greek classicist writers that fueled the Enlightenment and hence liberty. T.S. Eliot didn’t inspire any freedom at all, so I am not surprised that the readers of his works aren’t inspired to fight for real liberty.

    For every cannon fodder idealist that has “bitterly regreted” their actions, there are about what, 100… 1,000 people either dead or suffering because of those actions?

    [quote]Although the revolutionaries back in Oklahoma and elsewhere had been decidedly leftist, the revolution they helped birth was a restrictive theocracy. One of the most interesting portions of the book describes how those leftists, at least in the early stages, managed to rationalize and excuse such clear signs that things had gone sharply awry as the imposition of the veil and the subjugation of women.[/quote]

    One of the paradoxes of the human condition is how often Evil, fascism and communism, have been birthed from and helped by “Leftist” causes. Ostensibly for “social justice” or whatever.

    Pacifism isn’t evil’s greatest ally, for no good reason.

    And it got worse, much worse; there are many passages in the book that reminded me uncannily of what it must have been like for French revolutionaries to have watched the unfolding of the Reign of Terror (those who survived, that is), not to mention Stalin’s ex-comrades viewing the purges of their ranks:

    There is something to be said to creating a system that doesn’t idealize Man, but instead works on the assumption that men will be evil, greedy, and blind. Russia trusted in a “Stalin” to do what is right, hoping to idealize a system of government through the idealization of a man. So foolish.

    A government system, from an engineering point of view, must have redunancies upon redundancies, along with fail-safes to save the fail-safes.

    But we see such a phenomenon again and again, as history repeats itself in its winding, twisting path.

    Human nature seems to be the only constant in predicting history.

    But as Nafisi describes them, the leftists who wanted so much to overthrow the Shah did not even seem to care about those petty little details when thinking about what would take his place.

    Which is probably why the US constitution only allowed voters to vote for their own representatives, not the representatives of Other People that they Don’t Freaking Know or care about.

    Sort of like deciding what Iranians need for a government, when living in the US.

    There’s a slight conflict of perspectives here.

    If they actually formed, like say, an on the ground political/military organization that would go to Iran and affect the reality on the ground, that would give them some credence to make decisions about Iranian future political systems. But when they are safe from the consequences of their actions, but the Iranians in Iran aren’t… we have a little bit of a conflict of interest.

    I have come to conclude, as this is itself a conclusion, that humanity needs to be tempered and forged on the anvil of reality, with the heating of will and the carbon of knowledge.

    Intelligence isn’t enough. Aggression isn’t enough. Idealism isn’t enough.

    They must be harnessed, so that the force that humans may bring, are focused to a point, in a disciplined manner that actually does “work” in the physics sense.

    Otherwise people are just pissing away their wealth, intelligence, and time.

    Intelligence untrained, might as well be the blind leading the blind. Aggression untrained might as well be a mob in Afghanistan shooting weapons in the air.

  8. chuck Says:

    In Nafisi’s case, she seems to have been mainly a romantic…

    I have long regarded the left as just one manifestation of the romantic movement in Europe in the late 1800′s: ethnic nationalism and the glorification of heroic violence were others. The consequences were WWI, communist rule in Russia, the fascists, the nazis, WWII, and the death of European civilization. Such is the consequence of bad ideas. I much prefer the political philosophy from the time of the English enlightenment, it seems so much saner.

    And I did think my contemporaries were dumb. Because, dammit, they were.

  9. terrye Says:

    I loved this book.

    It is not for women either.

    She writes with real clarity of the Iranian people and I found myself believing that most of them probably know the Republic is a fraud..but they do not know what to do about it.

    After all the last time they took matters into their own hands, they ended up with the Ayatollah.

  10. TalkinKamel Says:

    I’d like to feel sorry for this young woman, but I really can’t.

    To be honest, I feel a sort of grim satisfaction from her story. Unlike American baby boomers, who never actually had to face Pol Pot, experience a Vietnamese re-education camp, and to whom Little Saigon is merely a quaint, ethnic enclave, she got to experience the “paradise” she helped bring about up close and personal.

    Unfortunately, the reign of the Mad Mullahs radicalized the Middle-East. Millions of lives were lost in the stupid Iran/Iraq war and now it looks as if the mullahs might get nuclear weapons!

    These idealistic, artistic literary types sometimes learn their lesson; but they usually learn it too late to do the rest of us any good.

  11. Promethea Says:

    The American educational system needs a serious fine-tuning so that young citizens will learn (1) the laws of supply and demand, and (2) the importance of federalism and the three branches of government.

    These are simple, elementary ideas, yet I’m willing to bet that 95% of all American students today do not understand the workings of the U.S. government.

    That’s why the Rousseauish leftism is so appealing–it speaks to the idealism of many well-meaning college students, and they have NO DEFENSE against these beautiful yet stupid concepts.

    Witness the turmoil in France today. I’ll bet the French police are jailing and shooting lots of “youths”–but the American students have little awareness of European traditions, including police force.

    The American educational system is well-meaning, but fails to do the simple job of teaching simple basic ideas re government.

    Have I repeated myself enough? I hope so.

  12. Anonymous Says:

    “(T)he tendency of literary and intellectual youths in free societies to gravitate towards leftist causes” equals ignorance, a foundation of which is explored in Envy by Helmut Schoeck, a manifistation of which is displayed in Heaven on Earth– The rise and fall of Socialism by Joshua Muravchik, and the journey from which is magnificent in Radical Son by David Horowitz.

  13. igout Says:

    For an affectionate but wiser look at this mentality, there’s a French movie called May Fools (or something like that). Set during the 1968 students’ revolt in France, you see people old enough to know better, and rich enough to be fearful, nevertheless fall under the spell of universal brotherhood, equality and endless happiness. The movie could have been a savage but well-deserved hatchet job, instead it’s gently amused. How can you be angry at these big children and their beautiful fairy tale? Over here, certain adults get all goony over Santa Claus; over there it’s over revolutions.
    Really, the Almighty was looking out for us all when He made the founding fathers sufficiently cynical.

  14. strcpy Says:

    “And indeed, one wonders how it was that smart people could have been so dumb;”

    In my opinion one can see why by noticing that running through all of those types of ideas is the assumption that you can manipulate everything. That if, in your mind it works, it will work in the real world.

    It’s the difference between theoretical physiccs and applied physics. In theoretical if it is possible that is enough, the old adage that an elephant could be supported by a dendelion stem. Applied is trying to look at what actually works.

    So, in this example she visualises this harmonious society in which all poor is gone and we live in a paradise. That’s far enough – the state *can* exist therefore it will. Never mind that the system itself depends on several things that just do not occur (such as ignoring the ability for a dishonest person to SERVERLY game the system for personal wealth and power). Many times the idea doesn’t go away, it’s just that the wrong people were in charge. Next time it will work.

    You can see this in the Russian revolution, and even more dramitically in Pol Pot’s rise to power.

    Plus it can be hard to counter, one is a message of “We will live in bliss – I *know* it to be true” and the other is “No, life is going to be hard”. People want to believe one. It’s an alluring beliefe.

    You can also see this trend in what profession one chooses and where you live – the more you can manipulate your work or living environment the mroe likely you are to think you can manipulate everything. That’s not stupid, if nearly everything in your life is manipulatable – why not think everything else is? A few years on a farm or in the military usually change those ideas but few every really venture out into those types of places for more than a few days – and even then in a fairly controlled way.

  15. Goesh Says:

    - I seem to recall that 40% of Iranians were born after Khomeni bit the dust. That is a large number of young minds to try to manage via islamic fundamentatlist values and world views, especially in light of the internet and television. To me, that is the only saving grace in Iran. There is a strong, outside force opposing the imams that is not going away any time soon but I’m not sure how much they are being heard.

  16. Sam Says:

    It would do anyone interested in knowing how the theocratic regime came into power good to look into the CIA overthrow of the SECULAR government of Iran in 1949 (? or was it 56?). That was what led to what exists today. Looking into how the U.S. has interfered in the politics of other governments, and how that has contributed to the rise in fundamentalism, is quite eye opening. Another great example is the CIA funding and arming of Osama Bin-Ladin and Al-Qaeda. The educational system is full of holes, I agree.

  17. Jamie Says:

    Sam, this blog is called “Neo-neocon.” “Neocon” political philosophy stands in opposition to realpolitik, which is what you’re talking about: the idea that we ought cynically to support those dictators and oppressive regimes that further our aims, whatever the cost in human life or integrity. The Bush Doctrine (which I’m guessing you oppose?) is a neocon idea: that we ought enthusiastically to support the ideals of our own founding wherever we see them beginning to develop or wherever they can be fostered, because (empirically – it’s not pie-in-the-sky) those ideals seem to bring about relative stability, prosperity, and cool-headedness in foreign policy.

    Then there’s the whole “natural right” thing, which we Americans aver yet for a long time were willing to oppose when it was not expedient. Now, thanks to the Evil Bush, the American Right can proudly declare itself on the side of freedom no matter who seeks it. The Left, silly folk, have set themselves up in opposition to freedom for some people in some situations (not just Iraq: college campuses spring to mind). Nice one. I don’t think they actually meant things to turn out this way…

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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