[lit-ideas] Re: Reading Lolita in Tehran

  • From: John McCreery <mccreery@xxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Wed, 21 Apr 2004 10:45:20 +0900

On 2004/04/21, at 0:55, Ceridwen Harris wrote:

> As I read this early part of the book, after my initial dismay at the
> conditions in which these women lived,  I was struck with how familiar
> these women were to me and also  how restrained even supposedly free 
> people
> are here in Canada - - perhaps the restraints are not physical as they 
> were
> in Iran, but the social pressure to conform is extraordinarily strong.

On 2004/04/21, at 6:54, Scribe1865@xxxxxxx wrote:

> While reading, it occurred to me what an outcast of the US would sound 
> like
> (Henry Miller's _Tropic of Capricorn_ came to mind) as I tried to 
> situate the
> author as an expatriate intellectual from a highly educated family 
> suffering
> first under the Shah and then under Khomenei.
> Then I realized that this is precisely what the author would NOT want 
> me to
> do. She is asking us to see her world on its own terms, not through a 
> dim
> refraction of our own experience and prejudices. A very hard task 
> indeed.

Nafisi herself writes (Start of Part I.10, p. 35),

"I have asked you to imagine us in the act of reading _Lolita_ in 
Tehran: a novel about a man who, in order to possess and captivate a 
twelve-year-old girl, indirectly causes the death of her mother, 
Charlotte, and keeps her as his little entrapped mistress for two 
years. Are you bewildered? Why _Lolita_? Why _Lolita_ in Tehran?

"I want to emphasize once more that _we_ were _not_ Lolita, the 
Ayatollah was _not_ Humbert and this republic was _not_ a critique of 
the Islamic Republic, but it went against the grain of all totalitarian 

I hear her speaking against the sort of literary criticism that 
consists of one-to-one mappings between figures in the text and figures 
in some other "real" life. So, if Humbert is not the Ayatollah, 
neither, in any simplistic way, is Nafisi Henry Miller or her "girls" a 
group of women that might be found in Canada. But if that is the case, 
how do we explicate, "it went against the grain of all totalitarian 
perspectives"? If we reject the easy one-to-one mapping procedure, how 
does our reading proceed?

I can think of two possibilities. Cerrie has provided an example of 
one, paying close attention to the details, which communicate 
differences as well as similarities to whatever analogous figures come 
to mind, based on the worlds in which we individually live. The other 
is to shift the plane of the argument, as Nafisi tries to do here, from 
any particular case to a more abstract and general perspective.

The first of these possibilities appeals to the anthropologist in me; 
the second to the philosopher I once thought I might become. But what 
am I missing here?

John L. McCreery
The Word Works, Ltd.
55-13-202 Miyagaya, Nishi-ku
Yokohama, Japan 220-0006

Tel 81-45-314-9324
Email mccreery@xxxxxxx

"Making Symbols is Our Business"

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