A little less than a year ago, I read, first, Lolita by Nabokov and then Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. Reading Lolita in Tehran is a memoir set in the times of the Iranian revolution and loosely structured as a series of anecdotes that focus primarily on the formation of a secret book club and discussion group for young female university students.
The book is very important, and I learned much from reading it. I highly recommend it, not only as a feminist work but as a work that addresses the particular frustrations and oddities of living under a totalitarian government.
Last night I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Nafisi speak in person, and I just can’t help but share some of the rich tidbits from her discussion.
Dr. Nafisi in person was not what I expected. I am not sure why (perhaps because I knew she was obviously very smart), but I expected a dry sort of intellectual person – very typically professorial, reticent. The person I observed behind the lectern emanated quite another persona. She seemed, literally, alight with passion and interest in both her topic and us.
With her head tilted slightly upward so that it caught the light, her face moved back and forth constantly as she looked across the audience in full engagement with her listeners. She gestured, she spoke confidently, she became so excited about her topic that midway through her discussion, she simply abandoned her outline and spoke as the moment dictated. I found myself both delighted and inspired by what could only be a particular kind of joie de vivre.
Her discussion, though a bit winding, frequently struck upon a couple of themes. First, was the importance / necessity of passion and curiosity – as both an indication of human dignity as well as a subversive political force. She described giving in to “the sensual urge to know” and exhorted listeners to “go as a person who has passion.” “The excitement of being alive is wanting to investigate,” she said.
In juxtaposition to her discussion of the power of curiosity, she described the nature of totalitarian governments to crush this subversive force by attacking women, the minorities and culture. These three are “the canaries in the mine,” she said, the first aspects of society that totalitarian governments target when seeking to gain control. She explained the ways in which this patterned played out in Iranian society and spoke of the closing of universities, restrictions placed on the movements of women in society, the defrocking of female judges, the burning of books. I promised myself to keep my eyes open.
Lastly, she described what she saw as a “crisis of vision” in American society and addressed two particular aspects of this crisis. First, she described a polarization / idealization she had observed within society, reflected in the media, in which even news sources are not biased. Everyone knows and accepts that certain news programs are slanted certain ways. She also explained that entertainment and news have overlapped in troubling ways – the decisions of any one of Hollywood’s celebrities are often treated with the same gravity as national or international events in the media.
In addition, she warned of ways in which “utilitarianism parades as pragmatism.” For example, when the humanities – a subversive life force in society – are cut from universities because they do not lead to the right jobs. Or, when public libraries are cut to save money- these libraries being the only means of obtaining literature by those who do not have financial means. (She also addressed the notion that only those who have money are interested in wanting to learn, to know.)
All in all, I am thankful I had the opportunity to hear Azar in person. Her latest book Things I’ve Been Silent About is another I have added to my growing list to read. Azar is a vibrant woman – curious, engaged, interested. I imagine I won’t be able to forget her.