Reading Azar Nafisi as a Literary Critic

In addition to being a memoir and an intense account of life for a feminist, western-educated academic in post-revolutionary Iran, Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran is a work of what might be called Aristotelian literary criticism. It has four chapters and four primary subjects: Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James, and Austen. She has challenging close readings of each, including an especially inspired read of The Great Gatsby, about which there is more below. I'm not surprised that the publishers of Reading Lolita have played down the lit-crit content in this memoir, as it is considerably less marketable than the publishing phenom that is Oppressed Muslim Women. But ignore the cover blurb from Bernard Lewis, and try and forget that this would be an Oprah Book Club book (if Oprah still had a Book Club... damn you/bless you, Jonathan Franzen!); Nafisi has compelling ideas about the authors she loves, and works them out at length in this memoir.

As a reader, Nafisi is not just avowedly apolitical, she is militantly so. There is a theory of literature scattered through these pages, a theory that I haven't yet been able to pin down in a single phrase or passage, but it's one that is strongly oriented to the freedom of the imagination. A good starting point might be the following paraphrase of something Nafisi told her class while teaching The Great Gatsby at the University of Tehran in the early 1980s:

A novel is not an allegory, I said as the period was about to come to an end. it is the sensual experience of another world. If you don't enter that world, hold your breath with the characters and become involved in their destiny, you won't be able to empthaize, and empathy is at the heart of the novel. This is how you read a novel: you inhale the experience. So start breathing. I just want you to remember this. That is all; class dismissed.

This metaphor, of reading as breathing is not entirely innocent, as Nafisi well knows. She herself did graduate work in the English department at the University of Oklahoma in the 1970s, and was a committed leftist early in her career. (Her Ph.D. dissertation, she tells us, was on the American communist Mike Gold, author of Jews Without Money and My Aunt Lena.) In Nafisi's early years as a professor of literature, everything was political. And the early years of the Islamic Revolution made the politicization of literature permanent (albeit in right-wing Islamist terms). After initially resisting the regime, Nafisi settled into a life that entailed compromising with it on matters such as the veil, as well as her own idealism. As the fascistic, repressive hold of the regime deepened, Nafisi started to change her thinking. She came to realize that the line between even divergent orthodoxies is negligible, so long as they aim to quell dissent, deviance, or any kind individuated intelligence whatsoever. Reading Lolita in Tehran, written after Nafisi left the country in 1997, argues this latter point quite forcefully. For Nafisi, any rigidly orthodox mode of reading fails to account for the complexity of the mind, or of the story itself.

Of course, it isn't quite accurate to say that reading Reading Lolita in Tehran is the same as reading a book by, say, Denis Donoghue. Nafisi sets up the Gatsby reading with her own personal experiences leading up to her first attempts at teaching it at the University of Tehran in 1981. The ideologically hyper-charged climate is important, but so is the fact that Nafisi started out teaching immediately after the Islamic Revolution, when left-leaning intellectuals were still somewhat confident that their views would be accepted by the new Regime. They still dominated the universities at the time, and the rich, modernist, almost Parisian arts culture of pre-revolutionary Tehran seemed too important to simply be erased (little did they know).

The university as a whole was not yet Islamized when she first taught this book, but many of her students were. Indeed, as she tried to teach Gatsby in an Intro to the Novel type class, Nafisi found that some of her students simply could not stop objecting to the novel's "immorality," specifically its seeming "advocacy" of "adultery." She resolved the problem through rather drastic means: she allowed her students to put The Great Gatsby on trial. She let the most strident critic of the novel's immorality speak for the prosecution, and one of her female students spoke in the novel's defense. Nafisi herself 'was' the novel in the mock trial (the defendent). The students' statements both contra- and pro-Gatsby make for some of the most memorable passages in the book.

(As I was reading, I was thinking about whether or how such a teaching strategy might work in my own classroom. It seems doubtful, because my students, as much as I like and respect them, simply don't feel as passionately about virtually anything as Nafisi's students did.)

Back to Gatsby. It's important to keep in mind that Nafisi mentions that Fitzgerald was in some sense counter-programming to the leftists on her syllabus:

Before I started teaching The Great Gatsby, we had discussed in class some short stories by Maxim Gorky and Mike Gold. Gorky was very popular at the time--many of his stories and the novel The Mother had been translated into Persian, and he was read widely by the revolutionaries, both old and young. This made Gatsby seem oddly irrelevant, a strange choice to teach at a university where almost all the students were burning with revolutionary zeal. Now, in retrospect, I see that Gatsby was the right choice. Only later did I come to realize how the values shaping that novel were the exact opposite of those of the revolution. Ironically, as time went by, it was the values inherent in Gatsby that would triumph, but at the time we had not yet realized just how far we had betrayed our dreams.

It was only later that her experience with Gatsby became the defining one for Nafisi. This idea of the betrayal of ideals is one that appears again and again in the Gatsby section of Nafisi's memoir, and it points at what might be the philosophical basis of her approach to literature -- the failure of Platonism.

What Nafisi sees in Gatsby is not a celebration of ideal or idealization, but its inevitable collapse. (In this sense, her reading of the novel is quite different from the one John Holbo outlined on the Valve back in April.) I think it's a point worth mulling over. It's certainly an arguable reading (doesn't Fitzgerald's novel celebrate illusions, not demystify them?). But here is Nafisi, again paraphrasing one of her lectures on the novel:

I would like to begin with a quote from Fitzgerald that is central to our understanding, not just of Gatsby but of Fitzgerald's whole body of work, I began. We have been talking about what Gatsby is all about and we've mentioned some themes, but there is an overall undercurrent to the novel which I think determines its essence and that is the question of loss, the loss of an illusion. Nick disapproves of all the people with whom Gatsby is in one way or another involved, but he does not pass the same judgment on Gatsby. Why? Because Gatsby possesses what Fitzgerald, in his story 'Absolution,' calls the 'honesty of imagination.'

Even if one might disagree with her take on this and other novels, what's impressive is Nafisi's ability to make this quintessentially American novel a matter of quintessentially Iranian/progressive ethics. She finds, remarkably, a natural channel from Gatsby back to the Ayatollah Khomeini. The index is the danger of ideals, of which Nick Carraway is as guilty as the Islamic Revolution. When Nafisi refers to the Ayatollah Khomeini and the other leaders of the Revolution in Iran as "Philosopher- Kings," as she does several times, she knows exactly what she's doing.

This book provokes serious thinking seriously about the value of the literary. Part of its power comes directly from the text of the memoir, from Nafisi's own pointed arguments about why one reads, and why she herself reads and teaches literature. But it also comes from the strangeness of the situation: here are these women, their lives destroyed by an unthinkably repressive regime, and their most subversive act is... to get together once a week to read photocopied (illegal) copies of Lolita? (Hardly, on the surface, a feminist or progressive text in the received/ conventional readings; Nafisi reads it against the grain.) All in all, it's rather improbable and anti-intuitive that Nafisi became a less political reader, rather than a more political one. But she makes a good case for her response: no matter what they banned or who they imprisoned/tortured/executed, literature provided the means to keep one's imagination free and open. Humbert Humbert, Jay Gatsby, Daisy Miller, and Elizabeth Benneet were the characters whose stories Nafisi knew and loved best, they were the characters that kept her and her students' minds alive until the they could get out.