Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Emily Bronte : Wuthering Heights

One final digression into the canon of English literature - thanks to Azar Nafisi, though she mentioned it only in passing as something that an orthodox Muslim student found offensive due to the adultery (although I couldn't find any)

Thank goodness I was never subjected to this grim tale in high school!

It's so vastly different from Jane Austen -- it's hard to believe it was written in a time/place/social circumstance that was so similar.

I suppose the difference is that Bronte has chosen to write a Gothic novel -- a genre so popular then that Austen even wrote a parody, and might well have included "Wuthering Heights" in her list of the "Northanger Horrid Novels", to stand beside "The Castle of Wolfenbach" and "The Tale of the Black Forest"

How it compares with other examples of the genre is a question which I will never be able to answer, as I prefer horror stories that are brief and whimsical.

And yet, I did find this one as fascinating as a train wreck -- with a very long train falling off a very long bridge into a very deep valley.

And though I'm not interested in being politically correct, this does seem to be one long exercise in racial/colonial anxiety -- centering on the fear of the resentment felt by a dark-skinned anti-hero, of unknown ethnic origin (possibly gypsy), who is smarter, stronger, meaner, and, of course, sexier, than anyone else in that remote Yorkshire valley. And to throw in some class conflict, he is aided and abetted by Nelly Dean -a servant who also serves a narrator - who saves his life as an infant and who gets him what he wants even as she appears to loyally serve other masters.

(although I think the real villain might be Dr. Kenneth -- all of whose patients, just like the author herself, die before the age of 40, and usually, even younger than that)

Perhaps I stuck with this orgy of pain and degradation because it never really turned into a good vs. evil melodrama. Heathcliff was not attacked and eventually destroyed by opponents (as, say, Count Dracula usually is). He was only destroyed by himself - by his own resentment that kept him as distant from human society as he ever was when he was abandoned as an infant in the streets of Liverpool.

One may also note that, as with Austen, this fictional world is completely feminine -i.e., it's the woman's world of the home and family - with no connection to the man's world of labor, craft, commerce, warfare, law, politics etc.. Who manages the estate while Hindley is sinking into an alcoholic daze? And how does Heathcliff make his fortune during the three years that he is gone from the Heights? Why don't the Lintons have any connections in the town who can help them? (even though Edgar serves in some kind of civic capacity)

Were all the novels of that period written for, by, and about women ?

None of the men here can deal with the death of their mate. Old Earnshaw dies soon after, Heathcliff is haunted and driven mad, and Edgar leads a lonely, miserable life and dies in his thirties. Is this a woman's fantasy world -- or what!

It seems to be a fantasy for women who feel overprotected, indeed, imprisoned in the domestic world and long for the dangerous but passionate life outside the gilded cage.

Bronte's poetry would seem to be going in the same direction.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Azar Nafisi - Reading Lolita in Tehran

This memoir has four (at least) areas of concern.

Mostly, it uses a few classics of English (mostly American) literature to attack the Islamic revolution in Iran.

Tangentially, it's also biographical, autobiographical and literary.

Concerning the fundamentalist Shia regime, the principal charge is that, like Jay Gatsby ("The Great Gatsby"), it has an impossible dream, and like Humbert Humbert (in "Lolita"), it forces that dream upon others.

And yet, curiously, Azar and her students were allowed to continue studying the literature of "the Great Satan". None of them were arrested or punished for it -- which would certainly have happened if they were reading Torah in Nazi Germany or anything Western in Maoist China, or any book at all in Pol Pot's Cambodia.

Perhaps, as women, their pastimes were not considered important enough to be threatening.

Which reminds us that this impossible dream is stridently patriarchal - and Azar feels oppressed as a woman, rather than as a non-Moslim or leftist or democratic activist. (so her class reading list moves from the nutty men at the center of "Lolita" and "Great Gatsby" to the free thinking women who drive the stories by Henry James and Jane Austen)

Lowering the age of marriage down to 9 years old !!??!!

Yikes -- though it's not clear just when sexual activity is permitted to begin. In many cultures, bethrothal is not the same as sharing a bed. Though, Azir does say that Humbert's relationship with Lolita would have been perfectly legal in Iran as long as he married her -- and the ayatollahs also accepted a kind of temporary marriage which doesn't seem too different from prostitution.

The point is -- revolutionary Iran is a man's world. Women provide childen, child care, and sexual pleasure. And when they step out of line, they are whipped or stoned.

The real tragedy of this story is the widespread rejection of moderation by all of the factions who shared power immediately after the Shah's abdication. And Nafisi, as a leftist, admits to her share of the blame.


Concerning biographical elements, the problem is that they so tantalizing, but also incomplete.

We get little snippets of her own life: her family background in scholarship, her father as a black sheep who went into politics and became mayor of Tehran (only to be impeached and imprisoned by the Shah). Then there's Azar's first marriage, to an Iranian student in Norman, Oklahoma -- which she says was self-destructive. But all of this information is just too fragmentary to make a story or define a character.

But I get the feeling that Nafisi became a scholar because that's what her family does, rather than from any special talent as a critical thinker. She can no more step back from her role of professional academic than the ayatollahs can step back from being professional clergy.

She just runs with the crowd.

As a student, she was a romantic-Marxist: shouting "Death to Shah", but not really meaning it. And as a university professor, she's loyal to her own modern, secular priesthood, and can only find the shortcomings of its adversary, the orthodox Islamic clergy. And she can't really relate to her students as anything more than students.

Did Khoumeni really issue a tract about bestiality, recognizing the need for men to have sex with chickens, so the job of the cleric was to define who could subsequently eat those birds when prepared for table?

Maybe he did - but I just don't trust her report. (BTW, there's a lot about Khomeini's book, "Tahrirolvasyleh" on the internet, with excerpts relating to the above, but a full translation into English is not yet available)

Were a bunch of university faculty really invited to a distant conference, just so they could be loaded into a bus that would subsequently be pushed over a cliff late one night? (and saved by the one professor who couldn't sleep)? Perhaps -- but again -- I don't trust her, since she is opposed to the reactionary regime that murdered people she knew and sent women back to the 10th century. And she does not see herself as a cronicler of history.

It's also interesting, that though her theme is basically feminist, Azar clearly defers to the wisdom of men, including her second husband and the retired movie critic whom she calls her "magician", a reclusive scholar who seems to serve as an unpaid therapist and faculty advisor.

So her American academic colleagues would probably not consider her very liberated.

There's the same sketchiness concerning the lives of her 7 students. All we get is little pieces. One woman was imprisoned several years by the Revolution for being the wrong kind of Muslim. Another had a possessive younger brother. Perhaps a really careful reading could assemble all the scattered facts about each of these characters - but I still doubt there would be enough to have a sharp picture of any of them.

The one thing they all have in common is an interest in Anglo-American culture -- and almost all of them end up in America, either permanently, or as students.

Is that typical for urban, educated Iranian women?


Finally, there are many examples of literary criticism, both specific and general -- and of the general statements, I was most fond of this tract by Joseph Conrad -- which reasserts the Aristotelian concern for mimesis that is so basic to Western European culture and democratic institutions.

As Nazir recalls the impassioned speech she gave at the "trial" her class staged for Nabokov's novel:

"A good novel is one that shows the complexity of individuals , and creates enough space for all these characters to have a voice; in this way, novel is called democratic, not that it advocates democracy, but that by nature it is so" (p. 132)

or as she wrote near the beginning:

"In all great works of fiction, regardless of the grim reality they present, there is an affirmation of life against the transience of that life, an essential defiance. This affirmation lies in the way the author takes control of reality by retelling it in his own way, thus creating a new world... the perfection and beauty of form rebels against the shabbiness of the subject matter"


Nazar's Iranian/American academic life is so peripheral to Iran, and her life is so comfortable (despite the inconvience of wearing the veil), this memoir is not as gripping as all those stories that have come out of China's cultural revolution.

While her focus on the repressive regime reduces/dominates/distorts her reading of English/American literature.

But still ... this does seem to be an honest account of one life led right at the epicenter of the conflict between politicized Islam and secular modernity.

If Islam needs to be enforced by state terrorism, it doesn't seem to have any more of a future than Communism did.

But if secular modernity only works for those who want to be professional academics (like all the women in this book), it will remain vulnerable to competing orthodoxies.