[lit-ideas] Re: Reading Lolita in Tehran

  • From: John McCreery <mccreery@xxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Tue, 4 May 2004 22:30:15 +0900

I have now begun re-reading part 2 of the book, where the focus shifts 
from Lolita to The Great Gatsby and from the reading group per se to 
Nafrisi's background and early encounters with revolutionary Iran. Two 
passages leap off the pages at me. In the first, pages 85-86, she is 
describing her involvement with the Word Confederation of Iranian 
Students at the University of Oklahoma, and the schizophrenic feeling 
of being simultaneously involved with (revolutionary?) politics and 
(reactionary?) literature.

> I never gave up the habit of reading and loving "counterrevolutionary" 
> writers--T.S. Eliot, Austin, 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.

I note the shift from "words" to "sounds," the latter, it seems, 
indicative of "unbridled, unreflective passion," an idea familiar to me 
as the core of Bronislaw Malinowski's theory of magic, as articulated 
in his monograph _Coral Gardens and Their Magic_. Malinowski, however, 
contrasts pragmatic use of language as a tool of communication with 
magical language whose "abracadabra" he sees as a survival of infantile 
dependence--the hungry infant's crying, for example. This sturdy 
contrast of businesslike/magical doesn't, however, doesn't comprehend 
the moral magic of fiction that Nafrisi later evokes, on page 94, where 
she describes the first class she taught at the University of Tehran.

> The first day I asked my students what they thought fiction should 
> accomplish, why one should bother to read fiction at all....I wrote on 
> the board one of my favorite lines from the German thinker Theodor 
> Adorno: "The highest form of morality is not to feel at home in one's 
> own home." I explained that most great works of the imagination were 
> meant to make you feel like a stranger in your own home. The best 
> fiction always forced us to question what we took for granted. It 
> questioned traditions and expectations when they seemed too immutable. 
> I told my students I wanted them in their readings to consider in what 
> ways these works unsettled them, made them a little uneasy, made them 
> look around and consider the world, like Alice in Wonderland, trough 
> different eyes.

But when, exactly, was it that fiction took on this unsettling role? If 
we think of epic poetry from Homer to Dante, the Iliad, the Aeneid, The 
Divine Comedy, for example, this description seems misplaced. Surely in 
these works, fiction has more to do with articulating and reinforcing a 
world view than alienating the reader from whatever she takes to be 
common sense. What, then, of Shakespeare, to the audiences who first 
watched his plays? To we who read them now? To what extent is Nafrisi 
attributing a revolutionary purpose to the "counterrevolutionary" 
authors she loves so much?

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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