Power and the Idealists
Some of Nafisi's comrades from the Iranian student movement in the united states, the leftists, were tortured and killed. students from her own literature classes were arrested, jailed, and raped. one of her students was executed. The Islamists established the practice of suicide bombings as early as 1979, the year of their triumph. The Islamist students who captured the American embassy in Tehran and held the diplomats hostage composed slogans, which they scribbled across the embassy walls: THE MORE WE DIE, THE STRONGER WE WILL BECOME. And, with crowds chanting 'Marg bar Amrika!'—'Death to America!'—and death-obsessed graffiti decorating the walls, people did, in fact, begin to die, and in large numbers.
Saddam Hussein came to power next door, in Iraq, in that same 1979—a year of paroxysm for the extremist political movements in the region. Saddam launched his own mad persecutions and his program of war, beginning with Iran. Young Iranian boys were soon enough marching into the Iraqi mine fields and poison gas, with keys dangling from their necks to symbolize the opening of the gates of heaven—boys marching deathward with the blessing of the fanatical clergy and to the cheers of their own mothers. In Nafisi's memoir, the violent atrocities take place off-stage, by and large—events that are mentioned but do not unfold before our eyes. Instead, she describes what might well seem, under other circumstances, scenes that are entirely benign, wholesome and even commendable—the vigorous intellectual life of her own classroom in those years, the formal discussions of her students, and the casual banter.
Iran is a land of literature, and the discussions in Nafisi's classroom, as she evokes them exude a natural and easy fervor—the intensity of students who feel keenly about books and writers and the entanglements of literature and life. But there is something manic about this classroom intensity. Some of her students are Islamists, and they have their opinions. The Islamist students want to interrogate literature through the prism of their own ideology; want to draw moral lessons or perhaps theological lessons; want to point fingers. They want to be ferocious; and they succeed. One of the students tells the class, 'All through this revolution we have talked about the fact that the West is our enemy, it is the Great Satan, not because of its military might, not because of its economic power, but because of, because of'—another pause—'because of its sinister assault on the very roots of our culture. What our Imam calls cultural aggression. This is what I would call a rape of our culture.' And the student holds aloft a copy of The Great Gatsby.
This is a remarkable speech. But is anything in this speech bizarre or unintelligible, from the point of view of modern intellectual culture in the West? Does this speech sing a song we haven't heard before? The radical Islamists in the Iranian revolution declared themselves to be the champions of the seventh century from the days of the earliest Muslim caliphate and the companions of the Prophet Muhammad. All over the world, people took the Islamists at their word, and looked upon them, in an anthropological light, as specimens from the seventh century—autochthonous barbarians descending from the hills in their magnificent turbans to reignite the dormant embers of ancient Iran, or the true flame of Islam, in its Shiite denomination. But Nafisi's description of classroom debate suggests something else. The diatribe by this one student, holding up his copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald's criminal text, is not at all a seventh-century speech, nor a speech by a peasant from the hills, herding his goats.
This speech enunciates some of the principles established by the extreme right in Europe long ago—the notion of an authentic culture under insidious attack by evil cultural forces from abroad; the notion that modern freedom poses a danger to eternal values, and must be fearlessly opposed; the notion that culture is a field of struggle, and a novel is not merely a novel, but is, on the contrary a weapon, to be wielded for good or for ill. These are not Koranic ideas. These are reflections of an entirely modern outlook, which has flourished at different moments all over the world—the outlook that came to dominate Europe and Japan during the fascist era, and quite a few other places. The kulturkampf.
Then again, these ideas have sometimes made themselves perfectly at home on the Marxist left, in a different version. Mike Gold was F. Scott Fitzgerald's contemporary and rival, and in the early nineteen-thirties Gold used to issue literary interdictions in precisely this condemnatory spirit on behalf of the American communist party—decrees of banishment and anathema that were intended to maintain the proletarian purity of the slum-dwellers and factory workers, and to rescue revolutionary ideas from bourgeois contamination. Even the sexual imagery in the Iranian student's classroom speech—'a rape of our culture'—strikes a familiar note. The American Stalinists in the nineteen-thirties used to complain about a homosexual danger to the masculine proletarian sense of virtue. Gold wrote a once-famous essay on this theme, denouncing the writer Thornton Wilder, whose prose and imagination seemed, in Gold's estimation, suspiciously prissy.
The similarities between the Islamists and the Stalinists of long ago could hardly have escaped Nafisi's notice, given her dissertation on Gold and American literature. 'The revolution Gold desired was a Marxist one and ours was Islamic, but they had a great deal in common, in that they were both ideological and totalitarian.' Then again, she might have noticed these similarities even without having written such a dissertation, simply by recalling the American student Marxism from New Left days, in its more emphatic versions. Radical leftists at the American universities did sometimes orate about literature and its nefarious influence—only, instead of citing 'our Imam,' as Nafisi's student did, the American New Leftists cited Mao Zedong's 'Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art,' a much-thumbed essay in its time. (This is the essay where Mao asks, 'Literature and art for whom?' and ends by calling for the destruction of 'feudal, bourgeois, petty-bourgeois, liberalistic, individualist, nihilist, art-for-art's sake, aristocratic, decadent or pessimistic, and every other creative mood that is alien to the masses of the people and the proletariat.') For that matter, some of America's English department radicals cited Stalin and not just Mao—a small fad, promoted by the RCP.
Nafisi remarks that, in her classroom in revolutionary Iran, the Islamist students 'spoke from a script, playing characters from an Islamicized version of a Soviet novel'—the kind of novel in which heroic characters play noble revolutionary roles in the struggle for the radiant proletarian millennium, only, in the Islamicized version, the heroic characters play noble roles in the sacred jihad to resurrect the ancient caliphate. Different mythology; similar spirit. I think that fantasy role-playing of this sort lies at the heart of a good deal of modern history, not just among Stalinists and Islamists. In their day, the Nazis went about conducting their German university battles in precisely this fashion, picturing themselves as heroic Aryans from a Wagner opera, cleansing away the Jewish impurities. Martin Heidegger, the university rector, presided over precisely this sort of thing at Freiburg in 1933.
Things were not really any different at the university of Salamanca in Spain in 1936, except with a slightly different mythology. A fascist crowd at Salamanca chanted 'Long live death!' and the fascist general lectured the rector by adding the further cry 'Down with intelligence!'—and the crowd and the general pictured themselves, all the while, as the warriors of Christ the King, smiting the atheist enemies of the Catholic faith, and lording it over the free-thinking intellectuals. Fantasy role-playing, it occurs to me, is the defining quality of all totalitarian movements and systems—role playing by totalitarian militants who feel entirely justified in liquidating everyone who fails to have a proper role in the grand tableau of the reigning mythology. Thus it was in Tehran. Professor Nafisi peered in wonder at her own students, the champions of the seventh century. Her thoughts flew back to the China-dreaming Iranian fantasists of Norman, Oklahoma. And, as she contemplated the Islamist students and their hatred of everything that fell outside the Islamist mythology, she found herself reflecting, 'If the leftists had come to power, they would have done the same thing'—a heart-piercing comment.
Life at first one university and then another became harder to endure, not just because of the Islamist students but because the university administration was falling into Islamist hands. It became impossible for a woman to walk around the university grounds without wearing the veil of Islamist piety—this fearful political symbol of submission to theocratic authority. And, after many years, Nafisi withdrew from the university and began to run private classes of her own, from her home, in her field of English-language literature. Students came to her merely to savor the intelligent joys of literature and study. The students were women, plus one man, and their discussions are exhilarating to observe, in Nafisi's account—discussions proper to literature, discussions that wander back and forth from the pages of novels to the pages of life, now taking up public issues, now private issues, now veering into matters of sex and love, now back into literature.
Here, then, in Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran, is the story of someone who enlisted in the leftism of circa '68, and went on to discover moral and political failures in the left-wing movement, and came to adopt a different attitude altogether—an attitude of respect for the individual imagination. A liberal attitude. And it is the story of someone who, having set out in youth to fight against one kind of oppression, stumbles on the existence of a rather different kind—not capitalist exploitation, not imperialism, not the rule of neocolonialist elites such as the shah and his circle, but something newer, a modern phenomenon. Totalitarianism, in a word—the system of oppression that reaches into the coziest and most private corners of life, into questions of sexuality, conscience, and personal behavior, and sets out to squeeze each of these intimate and individual matters into the exact and peculiar shape that is required by the governing fantasy.
Or is it wrong to speak of totalitarianism? Maybe Khomeini's Islamist revolution represented something not at all like the totalitarian revolutions in other countries, except in a few unimportant and superficial ways—a development unique to Shiite Iran, or perhaps to Islam as a whole, but without any significant parallels to the European twentieth century. A good many political analysts do resist the totalitarian interpretation, and on the best of authority, too. They listen to the talk about Muslim or Iranian totalitarianism, and they respond by going to their own bookshelves and pulling down the many tomes written about the European experience, with their political-science checklists of totalitarianism's crucial traits. And the analysts pore over the checklists, looking for the parallels between Iran's history and Europe's. And, lo, Iran turns out not to be a European country and no two things are exactly alike. Nafisi herself pauses over this question, if only by putting her finger on the single most unusual aspect of the Iranian revolution—its most striking peculiarity. 'What differentiated this revolution from the other totalitarian revolutions of the twentieth century,' she observes, 'was that it came in the name of the past.'
But here Nafisi has made a mistake. Over the course of the twentieth century, quite a few totalitarian movements have pushed their way into power precisely by invoking the past. It was Mussolini who coined the word totalitarian, and Mussolini's grandest dream was to resurrect the Roman Empire. When his followers staged their March on Rome in 1922, they did so as 'centurions' of a Roman legion, preparing to plunge Italy back into the glories of ancient times. The crowd of Spanish fascists at Salamanca was dreaming precisely of the Middle Ages. As for the Nazis, their Wagnerian hoopla was meant to conjure a Germanic yesteryear of ancient forests and Norse gods. Then again, the Nazis also dreamed of resurrecting the Roman Empire, which they looked upon as the First Reich. And they dreamed of Ancient Greece. In the matter of fantastical reveries of an archaic past, the Nazis were prodigal.
Even the Stalinists of the Soviet Union celebrated a cult of the ancient communal virtues of the primitive Russian peasants. All in all, some sort of backward leap into the archaic past has figured in every one of the totalitarian mythologies in modern times. It's true that, in the matter of leaping backward, the Islamists (not just in Iran but in Afghanistan and Gaza and Algeria and other places) may have outleapt everyone else. A Koranic dream of ancient Medina and the early caliphs stood at the center, and not just at the margins, of Khomeini's revolution. But the mere fact of invoking the past was nothing special among modern totalitarians. Then, too, Khomeini's Islamists cultivated a number of futuristic hopes—a focus on social problems of the present day, and an expectation that modern technology, properly applied, would offer solutions. That was why, in the days of struggle against the shah, Khomeini spread his message by means of tape cassettes, which seemed the acme of technological advance in the nineteen-seventies; and why, after a few years, the Iranian Islamists began to make such a fetish of nuclear weapons; and why, in Iraq and other countries, the Islamist terrorists seized so fondly on cam videos and the Internet to advertise their beheadings and assassinations. These backward-gazing Islamists were forward-gazers, as well, eying with earnest hope and desire the perfect society of the technologically advanced future. The seventh century was the radiant future. And this, too, the forward-looking millenarianism that was also a backward-looking millenarianism, stood in the grand totalitarian tradition. 'Reactionary modernism' is Jeffrey Herf's phrase to describe the German impulse that led to Nazism; and reactionary modernism was alive and well in the Iranian universities.
The Islamists in Iran cultivated a few additional peculiarities. The sexual zaniness among the Iranian Islamists does seem to have gone beyond anything you would have seen among, say, the Stalinists or Nazis of the mid-twentieth century—not just an extreme impulse to contain and control female sexuality but a number of bizarre and fantastical ideas that were expressed by Ayatollah Khomeini in his opus, The Political, Philosophical, Social and Religious Principles of Ayatollah Khomeini. In this book, Nafisi tells us, Khomeini discusses sex with animals and even with chickens!—a bizarrerie that naturally accompanied the Islamist cult of the archaic. (The thrill in the radical Islamist movement derives precisely from the willingness to go ahead and enact the wildest customs of the seventh century—the amputations, the beheadings, the stonings, and so forth.) But, then, each of the totalitarian movements has boasted of its idiosyncrasies and has pioneered its own special taboo-breaking thrills, which always involve a shocking display of ruthlessness. This is not exactly a novel observation on my part.
In The Origins of Totalitarianisrn, back in 1951, Hannah Arendt analyzed with systematic zeal the Nazis and Stalinists, these erstwhile enemies and opposites of the nineteen-thirties and forties, whose mutual hatred and contradictory ideologies and rival Teutonic and Slavic brutalities led most people, at the time, to suppose that nothing could possibly link the movements together. Yet the whole point of Arendt's book was to sketch out the deep characteristics of each movement in order to notice the similarities, which turned out to be pretty substantial. Arendt wanted to identify these movements as examples of a larger, single thing, which might take different forms, Nazi or Stalinist or perhaps even something else, but whose correct name was, in any case, totalitarianism—the philosophical unity beneath the Hitler-Stalin Pact. Nafisi, in her own book, makes no effort to apply Arendt's philosophical analysis to the Iranian experience—which, by the way, would be a complicated thing to do, requiring all sorts of emendations and adaptations. Reading Lolita in Tehran is a memoir, not a work of philosophy.
Nafisi paints scenes, and this is not the same as making analyses. Most of her scenes are on an intimate scale—Persian miniatures, so to speak, sketched in hues that are oddly dark. The scenes may seem a little exotic at times, because Iran seems exotic to us non-Iranians. And yet, the sense of dread floating through these scenes ought to strike us as instantly recognizable—a dread that we have run across in other memoirs about Berlin and Leningrad, from many years ago. The political scientists, some of them, may go on waving their European check-lists and objecting that Khomeini's Islamism cannot possibly be a modern totalitarianism. But I think that readers of literature, who judge by smell and feel, will sense at once that Nafisi is speaking of familiar experiences. Perhaps someone might argue that, in any common-sense definition, totalitarianism can only mean a 'total' system of oppression, leaving room for not one square inch of autonomous thinking or activity—which is a kind of all-encompassing domination that, in Iran, has never existed. Yet this definition was not really Arendt's.
Totalitarianism, in her explanation, is a kind of ideal, an impossibility, toward which the totalitarian militants vigorously strive—a mythology, as I would put it, which the militants are never able to enact. That is why the totalitarians always end up slaughtering masses of people—out of frustration at the human race's stubborn refusal to be anything but the human race, and out of the lust for thrills, and out of a realization that only in death can the mythic universe be fully achieved. Arendt explains in a crucial passage of her book that not even Hitler finally succeeded in creating a genuinely totalitarian state, for all his efforts. Arendt is subtler than some of her readers remember. But Nafisi remembers, and, in the course of her Persian memoirs, she duly nods in Arendt's direction, not out of doctrinaire adherence to a political theory but simply because a liberal-minded professor of literature in Iran under the Islamist tyranny would naturally find her thoughts drifting toward political philosophy, and certain philosophers turn out to be apropos. Reading Arendt in Tehran would make an entirely plausible title for an all-too-modern book.
Something else in Nafisi's memoir ought to be remarked, and this is her personal response to everything she encounters—a rebellious impatience, which is not exactly political, at least not in any straightforward way. She observes the revolutionary goings on, and, recoiling, chooses to teach Jane Austen to her students—Austen, who, as Nafisi observes, may have been the earliest writer to offer a modern discussion of marriage and freedom. Nafisi teaches Scott Fitzgerald instead of Mike Gold because Fitzgerald wrote about individuals making personal choices, and not just about social classes and grand mythologies, as Gold did. She quotes Saul Bellow on the value of literature in the face of political oppression—on literature's ability to reach 'the heart of politics.' And what is the heart of politics? It is the precise spot where, in Bellow's phrase, 'the human feelings, human experiences, the human form and face, recover their proper place—the foreground.' That is the purpose of Nafisi's many scenes of literary discussion and university life and her hints about love and friendship. She wants to bring what is human into the foreground and to push aside the doctrines and ideologies. This is likewise Orwell's purpose in 1984. It is Havel's purpose in his theater plays and prison letters, and Michnik's purpose in his own prison essays, And the purpose of how many Russian writers? And of what percentage of the twentieth century's most searing political analyses? At the very end of Reading Lolita in Tehran, Nafisi speaks at last about a feeling of 'hatred'—her own hatred, and the hatred that she and her mother shared, back in Tehran. It is a hatred 'of evil totalitarian systems which Nabokov denounced for holding their citizens hostage by their heartstrings'—a nod from an exiled Iranian to the exiled author of Invitation to a Beheading. Does hatred seem extreme? Nafisi doesn't mean by this Word a wild rage. She means something more precise, a righteous anger, and this, too, ought to strike us as familiar. It is the hatred that totalitarian regimes have always aroused—the angry response that sooner or later flies up from the human soul to greet the tyrannical mythologizers.